An Overview of Breakup Depression

A couple in the middle of a breakup

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Breakups can take a serious toll on your well-being. Not only can the end of a relationship lead to major life changes in finances and living situations, but breakups also create a great deal of emotional turmoil. Some splits are easier than others. You might be able to let go and move on fairly quickly. In other cases, you might feel angry, sad, bitter, anxious, and heartbroken. 

All of these emotions can be perfectly normal after a romantic breakup—but if they lead to prolonged feelings of sadness and apathy, it might be a sign that something more serious is going on. Stressful life events such as a breakup or divorce can sometimes trigger prolonged and severe emotional distress. 

One study found that even normal post-breakup emotional states closely resemble clinical depression.

Experiencing depression and other symptoms following the end of a relationship is sometimes diagnosed as an adjustment disorder with depressed mood, also referred to as situational depression. While these feelings usually resolve within six months, it is still important to understand the signs and symptoms so that you can find help and support if you need it.

Symptoms

Feelings of sadness can vary from mild to severe after a breakup. Sometimes these feelings can be strong for a relatively brief period of time. In other cases, people might feel milder feelings of sadness that linger for a longer period of time.

Because the emotional responses to a breakup can vary so greatly, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if what you are feeling is a normal response to the end of a relationship or something more serious. More serious symptoms that may indicate depression include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Losing or gaining weight; appetite changes
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Loss of pleasure and interest
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feeling sad, empty, or worthlessness
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Listlessness

Grief and sadness are normal reactions after a stressful life event. Research has found that break-ups can influence people in a number of profound ways. Following the end of a relationship, people report negative outcomes such as distress, loneliness, and a loss of their sense of self.

Give yourself time to grieve the loss of the relationship. Healthy responses include a period of sadness, crying, frustration, regret, and even the loss of interest in things you normally enjoy. It is a period of adjustment, so you need to give yourself some time to cope and heal before you are able to move on. While upsetting, these feelings usually start to lessen with time as you recover from the breakup.

If your symptoms seem more serious than normal sadness after a breakup or if your symptoms seem to be getting worse, talk to your doctor about what you are feeling.

Causes

As a form of situational depression, the end of a relationship is what triggers these feelings. A breakup can be a point of major change in a person’s life. Not only does it mean no longer being involved with someone you once loved, but it can also lead to an entire cascade of life changes. Shared friends may choose sides, which can lead to the end of other relationships. You might have to adjust your finances, your living situation, or even cope with the challenges of co-parenting children with your ex.

Breakups can also influence how you view yourself. One study found that the end of romantic relationships influenced how university students felt about their own academic performance, including their ability to concentrate, their homework, and test scores.

Another study found that breakups not only altered self-concept but that people who have a greater disruption in their self-image are also more likely to experience more post-breakup emotional distress.

All of these adjustments can be challenging. They can make you feel confused, insecure, anxious, and sad. And in some cases, it may trigger more severe and longer-lasting feelings of depression.

Diagnosis

Breakup depression is not an actual medical term or diagnosis, but this does not mean that what you are feeling after a breakup does not represent a real condition. Once you decide to talk to your doctor or mental health professional about it, they will ask you a number of questions about your symptoms. You will need to explain the symptoms you have been having, how long you have had them, and how severe they are.

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor might diagnose you with adjustment disorder with depressed mood (sometimes referred to as situational depression). Adjustment disorders are conditions that can occur when you have difficulty coping following a stressful life event. 

To be diagnosed with this condition, you must:

  • Begin experiencing symptoms within three months of the identifiable trauma (in this case, a breakup)
  • Have symptoms that are worse than what is expected and that interfere in your daily life
  • Have symptoms that are not the result of another condition or related to substance or alcohol use

Treatment

The good news is that even if you do experience depression triggered by a breakup, symptoms usually begin to get better on their own by six months after the event. As time passes, your situation improves, and you begin to recover from the breakup, in most cases, you will find yourself gradually feeling much better.

If your symptoms are mild to moderate, you may be able to handle them on your own by practicing good self-care and surrounding yourself with a strong support system.

If your symptoms are more severe or if you just feel that you need a little extra help coping, talk to your doctor or therapist. Counseling can be helpful to help you gain perspective, address negative thought patterns, and establish coping skills that may help you both now and in the future.

If your symptoms are severe or do not seem to be improving, your doctor may also prescribe medications such as antidepressants that can help.

Coping

Whether you’re are having normal post-breakup sadness or something more serious, there are things that you can do to make it easier to cope once a relationship ends. While there is no way to predict who will experience breakup depression, there are things that you can do to help make yourself more resilient to stressful events.

Some things you can do include:

  • Forming a strong social support network
  • Caring for yourself and your health
  • Learn problem-solving skills
  • Work on improving your self-esteem
  • Create goals to work towards
  • Take steps toward solving your problems
  • Find a sense of purpose in your life

Research has also shown that writing about what you are feeling can improve coping after a traumatic event. One study found that people who used positively-focused writing had the greatest increase in positive emotions following a breakup.

Finding ways to stay occupied can also be helpful. While you might be tempted to brood, doing things that keep your mind and body busy keep you from ruminating over negative thoughts. Try digging into a new project around the house or start up a new hobby that you’ve been wondering about. Exercising and spending time with friends can also be a great way to elevate your mood and cope with post-breakup stress.

Breakups can interrupt your sense of personal agency and even challenge your self-belief. Focusing your attention on the aspects of your life where you do have more control, such as your work or your hobbies, can help you restore your sense of mastery and help you feel more empowered. 

A Word From Verywell

The end of an intimate bond can signal a whole host of life changes. Sometimes these changes can be a good thing—it can lead to personal growth or moving on to a relationship that is more supportive and loving.

In some cases, they can result in lingering feelings of depression. While it is normal to be sad or even heartbroken for a while after a breakup, you should talk to a professional if your symptoms seem to be stronger or lasting longer than you would normally expect. Focus on taking care of yourself, reach out to friends and family for support, and don't hesitate to talk to your doctor if your symptoms seem to be worsening.

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