It’s called “heartbreak” for a reason. The sudden emotional pain you experience when a relationship ends is natural and valid.
Breakups can be challenging, especially when they happen abruptly. But can they affect your mental health or cause depression?
Yes. It’s possible to experience symptoms of depression after a breakup, but not all feelings of sadness relate to this condition.
How long it takes to heal from a breakup depends on many factors, and one of them is your emotional response to the event.
Depending on your personal history, depression can be part of your emotional response to ending a romantic partnership. Symptoms may last for a while if you don’t get the proper mental health support.
But grieving is also a common emotional response. It may feel different and last less than symptoms of depression.
How do you know the difference?
Depression is not the same as feeling sad. You may feel very sad after ending a relationship, but it doesn’t mean you have depression.
It may be important to distinguish the difference. This could help manage your emotions and determine whether you may need support from a health professional.
What we usually refer to as depression is medically known as major depressive disorder, and sometimes clinical depression.
Stressful life events, such as the loss of a significant relationship, may cause episodes of clinical depression in some people. But this is not the rule, and there are many other factors involved in the causes of depression.
How do you know what you’re feeling is depression?
Even though everyone is different, mental health experts have identified some common symptoms that, if you experience for 2 weeks or longer, could indicate depression:
- persistent feelings of sadness
- loss of pleasure or interest in activities once enjoyed
- changes in appetite and weight
- changes in your sleeping habits
- feeling fatigued, achy, or low in energy
- finding it hard to focus and complete tasks
- feeling irritable, angry, or anxious
- thinking about death, self-harm, or suicide
Not everyone who goes through a breakup experiences these symptoms, though.
Researchers suggest that feeling betrayed, rejected, or not anticipating the end of the relationship may increase your chances of developing symptoms of depression.
Also, if you have a personal history of depression or bipolar disorder, you may have a higher chance of developing depression after a breakup.
I broke up with my partner: Is it depression or adjustment?
While stressful life events can contribute to episodes of major depression, they may also cause adjustment challenges.
Situational or reactive depression may sometimes feel like clinical depression.
This condition is typically linked to a specific event in your life, and may subside when and if you adapt to the change it may have caused.
Situational depression is not really a formal diagnosis. Instead, we talk about adjustment disorder with depressed mood.
This adjustment disorder is often characterized by persistent feelings of:
- low mood
- loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
The difference with depression is that when the stressor is removed, or you get used to living with it, symptoms decrease.
Grief and depression can sometimes overlap, but they’re different.
Grieving and depression can both involve feelings of intense sadness and social withdrawal.
However, emotions related to grief may come in waves, while people with depression experience sustained low mood and interest for longer than 2 weeks.
“It is common for recently separated individuals to go through a cycle of grieving. The loss of a romantic relationship […] follows the familiar pattern of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance,” Isha W. Metzger, a licensed psychologist from Atlanta, Georgia, told Psych Central.
In general, when you’re grieving, some experts believe your emotional pain may go through different stages, but it also tends to decrease as time passes.
Eventually, you reach acceptance.
Untreated depression, on the other hand, may continue for a long time without signs of improvement.
Thoughts of self-harm and suicide may also be a sign of depression as well as feelings of worthlessness.
If you notice your emotional pain decreases with time and you can function in the world, as usual, you may be going through a grieving process related to the loss of your relationship.
If, on the other hand, you continue feeling sad and hopeless, among other symptoms, after 2 weeks of breaking up with a partner, and you’re having a hard time going about your day and life, you could be experiencing depression.
Only a mental health professional can provide you with an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan to feel better.
Emotional pain after a relationship breakup is a natural response to loss, even if you made the decision to end it.
Feeling sad or irritable, having difficulty concentrating, and withdrawing from friends and family for a while after the event is completely valid and not uncommon. It doesn’t mean you have depression.
But if you think you’re having a particularly hard time dealing with the breakup, or your emotions are significantly impacting your life and other relationships, it’s highly advisable that you reach out to a mental health professional.
If you believe you’re going through a grieving process, working on coping skills to work through grief may help.
Here are some tips to work through your sadness after a breakup:
Focus on your body
There are a few immediate and long-term things you can do to improve your mood if you’re sad after a breakup.
One of them is to use your body. This means moving and exercising, but also maybe trying somatic therapy techniques.
For those moments of intense emotional pain, try these tips in the moment:
- Hold an ice cube in the palm of your hand until it melts.
- Take a shower and alternate temperature going from cold to warm to cold.
- Hug yourself, pressing your arms around firmly.
- Tap different body parts, starting with your feet going up to your head.
- Splash your face with cold water.
- Close your eyes and touch something, focusing on how it feels in your hands.
Focusing on physical sensations can help your mind step away from painful thoughts.
On the other hand, when you exercise, your body releases endorphins. These are chemicals that can positively impact your mood.
Exercise can also have
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing all your attention and awareness in the present moment.
You can practice mindfulness at any given moment. For example:
- Focus on colors, textures, and flavors as you eat your meal.
- Close your eyes and concentrate on how your body feels. Identify temperature, tension, and other sensations.
- Go around the room looking at each object and focusing on shape, color, shadows, and position.
Whenever you notice your focus is on what happened or what will happen, try practicing mindfulness to return to the present moment and decrease your distress.
Socializing can help to counteract the feelings of loneliness and sadness that can present with depression and grieving after a breakup.
Even if you don’t feel like it, consider making the effort to reconnect with your friends and family, or to make new connections.
Socializing can also be about attending a class or a public event. This can help you particularly if you’re feeling lonely after the end of a relationship.
Focusing your attention on your gains from the relationship may help you switch from negative thoughts to hopeful ones.
Consider journaling or asking yourself these questions:
- What did I learn?
- What do I need to work on moving forward?
- What am I grateful for?
- What do I now know I won’t accept in another relationship?
- What are all the reasons I feel proud of myself?
Feeling pain after a breakup is a natural reaction. Eventually, it subsides, and you find relief.
But if your emotional pain after a breakup persists or increases, or if you’re considering self-harm, it may be time to seek help.
“If feelings of sadness and grief persist and begin to interfere with daily tasks or domains (like work, school, or home), […] it might be time to seek professional help from a counselor or therapist,” says Metzger.
Consider searching for a professional in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). They can help you reframe your thoughts and develop specific skills to cope. They can also help determine if you have depression.
These resources can help:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists
- Affordable Counseling Through Open Path Collective
- Ayana’s Therapy for Marginalized and Intersectional Communities
Feeling low after a breakup is natural. Even if you decided to end things, you may still experience grief and may need some time adjusting to this change.
But grieving is not the same as having depression. Grief or sadness will decrease with time, while untreated depression may persist. Only a mental health professional can give you an accurate diagnosis.
In either case, it’s possible to find relief from ending a romantic relationship. Your pain does not have to become permanent, and you do not need to go through this on your own.