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What's the best way to deal with a break-up?

Leanne Hall
A man rests his head on his hands clasped together

How to cope with sadness or depression after a breakup

A man rests his head on his hands clasped together

Coming to terms with the deep feelings of sadness after a breakup can be difficult, but there are practical steps you can take to begin rebuilding your life.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between the sadness of processing a split and depression after a breakup. If you are experiencing extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a sense of worthlessness and the belief that there’s no hope for improvement in the future, it’s important to
reach out for help as soon as possible.

Why are breakups so painful?

A breakup, particularly one that’s unexpected, can sometimes feel like grief as you have parted ways with someone who was one of the most important people in your world. There can be feelings of betrayal, rejection, embarrassment, guilt and even relief, and you may find yourself struggling with trust issues.

There may be physical hurt, too, such as aches and pains in the body. Experts speculate that the emotions of a breakup trigger activity in the same part of the brain associated with physical pain.

In addition, some research suggests romantic breakups may cause insomnia, decreased immunity and even broken heart syndrome, where stress hormones after an emotional shock cause the heart to stop pumping blood properly.

What is an unhealthy response to a breakup?

Psychologist Leanne Hall stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to respond to a breakup – however some responses are less healthy than others. She says an unhealthy response can involve:

  • Spending all your time thinking and obsessing over your ex and doing things like stalking them on social media or driving past their house

  • Jumping straight into another relationship to avoid feeling unloved or lonely

  • Avoiding or numbing your painful feelings by using alcohol or substances

  • Stopping things you enjoy because they remind you of your ex

  • Searching for ways to stay connected with your ex. This can involve letting them string you along or finding ways to get back at them.

It can be tempting to make drastic changes to try to regain a sense of control over how you feel

7 coping mechanisms post-breakup

Here’s Leanne’s advice on the best ways to cope with feeling sad after a breakup and get back to mental wellbeing.

1. Give yourself time

They say time heals all wounds and when it comes to a breakup that’s particularly true, confirms Leanne.

“Breakups almost always negatively affect mental health,” she says. “This is completely normal. We need to allow time to grieve and adjust to being single – it’s not about loving being on your own, just learning to tolerate it.”

2. Surround yourself with supporters

Leanne recommends finding new routines and setting some fresh goals.
“Maybe you’ve always wanted to do a cooking course or perhaps you’ve always wanted to visit a certain place. Ask a friend or family member to do this with you,” she suggests.

“Start creating new memories and experiences. See these as opportunities to be around people who care about you. This will help you rebuild your confidence.”

Two females cuddle up on a lounge with their phones

3. Lean on your loved ones

Although you may want to snuggle under the doona and avoid reality for the first few weeks after a split, it’s important not to dwell on your troubles in isolation.

“You need time to grieve and adjust,” recommends Leanne. “It’s uncomfortable but necessary – dealing with hurt and loss is extremely hard and painful, which is why it’s important to reach out and connect with loved ones.

“Allow yourself to be vulnerable with those you trust, such as a best friend, parent or sibling, and know that it’s okay to give yourself time to heal. You may need to pull back on some of your commitments and plan time with friends instead.”

4. Avoid making big decisions

Going through a breakup is an emotional upheaval, so Leanne advises postponing big life changes until you feel calm and clear.

“This isn’t a good time to be making big decisions,” she says. “It can be tempting to make drastic changes in an attempt to regain a sense of control over how you feel. Cutting your hair is one thing, but moving cities or changing jobs is another. Let things settle down before you start changing your life.”

5. Take a break from social media

Being on social media following a breakup means you could see things you don’t want to, like your former partner seemingly relishing every minute of being single or – worse – in the arms of a new squeeze.

“I suggest going cold turkey and blocking your ex,” Leanne advises. “It’s not helpful seeing what they are doing, and just makes it harder for you to adjust and move on. If you have children together, keep your interactions focussed on the children only. Maintaining healthy boundaries not only makes it easier for you, but makes it less confusing to children, reduces conflict and helps them adjust.”

6. Practise self-care

According to Leanne, good self-care is key to keeping your mood and energy levels buoyant while you process a breakup.

“Make sure you are exercising and eating well – it sounds obvious but these things, along with sleep, are crucial during times of emotional adjustment and grief,” she says.

Being kind to yourself, instead of beating yourself up for choices you made, can be helpful. Research shows that divorced people who expressed high levels of self-compassion reported fewer negative thoughts and feelings about their split – an effect still present nine months afterwards.

Along with sleep, exercising and eating well are crucial in times of emotional adjustment and grief

7. Reach out for help

If your mood doesn’t lift, then it might be time to reach out to a professional, says Leanne.

“Following a breakup, many people experience a period of depression such as withdrawal, low mood and low self-esteem,” she explains. “If this pattern persists for several months, or if someone has a history of being depressed previously, I would always suggest they seek professional help. For others, it’s important to find ways to re-engage with life and people.”

Signs of depression include withdrawing from close family and friends, relying on alcohol or sedatives, lacking in confidence and change of appetite.

Related: What to expect from my first psychology appointment

Resources and support to help you through

If you need guidance, talk to your GP or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36. Here are some other resources that can help:

Beyond Blue: Coping with a relationship breakdown

Headspace: Dealing with relationship breakups

Kids Helpline: Coping with a breakup

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

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Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall is an integrative psychologist with additional qualifications in health and fitness and an impressive career as a therapist and health coach spanning more than 20 years. She’s the author of Head First Health Fast, The Smart Approach To Outwitting Body Issues and Sustaining Achievable Health and is currently completing her PhD in Ultra Running. Leanne is passionate about debunking the myth of 'balance' and keeps it real in everything she does. Something not many people know is that Leanne can mimic bird noises very well...