There’s no way around it: Breakups are hard, whether you end the relationship or someone else does.
In many ways, the ending of a relationship can feel similar to a death. After all, you’re losing the closeness you had with someone very important to you.
You will likely no longer be able to spend time with them and enjoy the same intimacy — and this can bring up very real feelings of grief. It’s perfectly OK to feel that sadness and to mourn what you lost.
You can also help yourself recover from the loss you experienced. You can call a friend, practice self-care, go for a run, or try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Here are some of the most helpful CBT exercises you may want to try.
CBT is short for the term “cognitive behavioral therapy,” and it is a well-researched and widely used type of therapy. People have found it helpful for treating a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, substance use, relationship issues, and grief.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy is a therapeutic approach that targets the connection between our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. so that we can shift from unhelpful and unhealthy patterns into healthier ways of thinking and behaving,” explains Victoria Smith, a licensed therapist based in Los Angeles, California.
In other words, CBT asks you to look at how your thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected so that you can understand why you’re feeling or behaving a certain way. Once you understand why, you might be able to better manage those thoughts and feelings and begin to change them.
Gayle Weill, a licensed clinical social worker licensed in Connecticut and New York, adds, “If you change the way that you think, then that [can] change the way that you feel, and then your behaviors [may] also change.”
The short answer: yes.
“After a breakup, a person is often left with a lot of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, such as ‘I’m a failure’ or ‘I’m unlovable’ or ‘I wasted my time in this relationship,’” explains Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan.
“These negative thoughts are distortions that can shape how a person thinks about themselves and contribute to depression or shape how they act about new relationships in the future, causing anxiety,” she continues.
CBT offers techniques to help challenge those thoughts.
“[It] offers ways for you to reframe your thoughts and feelings to help you be the person you want to be,” says Emilea Richardson, a licensed marriage and family therapist from South Carolina.
“Most people are trying to rediscover themselves after a breakup. Trying to figure out a new daily routine, or picture a new future. That’s scary,” she adds. “CBT helps you create healthy thoughts, use helpful coping skills, and take value-based action [so] you can move through the fear and grief of the lost relationship.”
If you’re trying to move on or cope with intrusive, negative thoughts after a breakup, here are some things that may help.
Spotting patterns through journaling
When you’re sad, it can be difficult to identify distortions in your thinking. It can be easy to fall into thinking patterns, such as “I’m going to be alone forever,” as a response to your pain.
One thing that can help is to start taking notes — either in a journal or just in your mind — of some of the recurring thoughts you have after a breakup. You can use these notes to try to spot some patterns in your thinking.
Perhaps you make the pain worse by allowing yourself to get worked up about the timeline you had for yourself about marriage and kids. Perhaps you tell yourself unhelpful (and likely untrue) statements about never getting past the pain or never loving again.
You may want to take note of these patterns and begin asking yourself why you are focusing on these negative thoughts and whether you even believe the unsettling things you’re telling yourself.
A helpful way to notice these patterns is through journaling. This technique allows you to slow down your thoughts, particularly when they’re racing or spinning around your head.
“Journaling helps individuals express thoughts and feelings in a productive way and helps them notice their emotions,” explains Weill.
Reframing your negative thoughts
Once you’ve noticed some patterns in your negative or unhelpful thoughts, you can try reframing them when they come up. You may want to shift them to thoughts that are more balanced and neutral.
In CBT, this is called cognitive restructuring.
“For example, someone might have the thought ‘I’ll never be good enough for a relationship and no one will ever love me again,’” says Smith. “So the reframe could be something like ‘I’m noticing a scary thought of being alone. I don’t know what the future looks like, but I know right now I’m feeling lonely and may need to reach out to a friend for support.’”
Another example of a reframe could be tweaking the thought “I’m going to be single forever” into “I’ll be single for a while.” This is a true statement but is less harsh, meaning it’s less destructive to your self-esteem and feelings.
Richardson suggests another example: “‘Instead of ‘I should have known better,’ a helpful replacement thought is ‘I was doing the best I could with what I had at the time.'”
In general, it’s helpful to remember that dating is a learning process. This means that a breakup is not a failure. Instead, it’s an opportunity for growth.
Trying the 5:1 ratio exercise
“When a person’s thoughts are overwhelmingly negative, it will take a substantial toll on their self-esteem and mood,” says Krawiec. If you’re having trouble reframing your negative thoughts, you can try an exercise Krawiec calls the 5:1 ratio exercise.
“To help correct each time a client says something negative or judgmental about themselves, I suggest they identify at least 5 alternatives,” she explains.
For example, if you find yourself saying statements that contain the words “always,” “never,” or “should,” you can consider whether those absolute statements are fair or balanced. They likely aren’t.
Every time you think or say something that contains those words, you can try to catch yourself and suggest five more neutral statements instead.
Perhaps you’re telling yourself, “My partners always leave me.” To push back against this statement you might remind yourself:
- “I did not give up on the relationship.”
- “I am proud of how deeply I loved.”
- “I would rather be with someone who wants to fight for our relationship.”
- “My partner and I ultimately were not compatible.”
- “I know this is hard for my partner, too.”
Refocusing on yourself
Another CBT exercise that can be helpful is called cognitive refocusing. It involves noticing when your thoughts drift to your ex, then trying to refocus them back on yourself.
“When you find yourself thinking of what your ex is doing or who they could be with,” says Lexi Joondeph-Briedbart, a licensed therapist from New York and support group leader, “shift the focus back to yourself. What are you doing at the moment? Who are you connecting with outside of your ex?”
This redirect of your thoughts can help you focus on what you have, such as your relationships with friends and family, instead of on what you have lost.
Drawing a pie chart of blame
“It’s very common after a bad breakup to feel like [either] it’s all your fault or all the other person’s fault,” explains Richardson. “Neither are true — CBT classifies this as black-and-white thinking, which is unhelpful.”
Instead, Richardson says, you can draw a pie chart and try to break down what actions and responsibilities contributed to the breakdown of the relationship.
This will help you rethink what happened, break unhealthy thinking patterns, and process what happened so you can come to terms with the breakup.
Drawing a thoughts-feelings-behavior triangle
A thoughts-feelings-behavior triangle is an exercise you can try either with a therapist or on your own, says Richardson.
For this exercise, you’ll start by drawing two triangles.
In the first triangle, you’ll write down the feelings, thoughts, and actions you’re experiencing right now. Once those are down, focus on the second triangle. What feelings, thoughts or actions do you wish you were experiencing instead?
Perhaps you feel sad, lonely, discouraged, and afraid. You want to feel empowered, content, and hopeful. You can ask yourself what is preventing you from experiencing the feelings you want to be feeling.
Perhaps write the things holding you back. You may realize that you have more control over your aspirational feelings, thoughts, and behaviors than you realize.
Imagining a stop sign
It’s OK to feel your feelings after a traumatic event, like a breakup.
But sometimes those feelings can get the best of us. Instead of experiencing your emotions and then moving on with your day, you may find yourself falling down a hole of negative thoughts. This can cause you to feel even more anxious and stressed.
Instead, you may try to identify when you’re allowing yourself to get worked up and remind yourself that you’re in control. Picturing an image of a stop sign can be a good reminder of that control.
“When you notice you are spiraling in your negative thoughts, simply imagine a bright red stop sign, and gently redirect your thoughts,” says Smith. “Make sure you are being compassionate toward yourself while you redirect your focus.”
It can also help to take deep breaths as you picture a stop sign in your mind. This gives you a couple of moments of quietness for your mind to recenter and calm itself.
“When we go through a stressor, like a breakup, it’s natural to want to spend time alone and spend a lot of time laying in bed,” says Brenda Arellano, a psychologist from Kentucky. “That’s totally fine in moderation [but it] can make it hard to get the chance to experience positive emotions.”
Instead, she suggests that you “give yourself the opportunity to feel good.” You can do that by scheduling activities you enjoy, such as hanging out with friends and family, going to the movies, or taking a walk in the park.
You may also consider engaging in activities as a way to distract yourself for a bit. For instance, if you start to feel like your mind is racing with negative thoughts, you can get up and go for a walk or call a friend.
Sometimes the change in venue or activity can be enough to calm yourself down and recenter your thoughts.
CBT can be extremely helpful post-breakup, but that doesn’t mean it can entirely erase the pain you’re experiencing. The reality is that you’re going to need time.
“It is important that we give people the space to grieve without immediately trying to change what they are feeling,” says Smith. “A huge part of going through and processing a breakup is experiencing deep feelings of grief and sadness, and that is completely [typical].”
It’s OK to be compassionate with yourself and give yourself permission to be sad for a while.
Other things you can do that might be helpful during this post-breakup time include:
- engaging in self-care
- making sure you remember to eat and drink water
- engaging in some light or enjoyable exercise
- practicing mindfulness
- focusing on deep breathing exercises
- listening to music
- spending time with your pets or animals
- going outside to be around nature, flowers, or some greenery
- spending time with loved ones to combat feelings of loneliness
- going to therapy
Breakups can be extremely painful, and it’s important to allow yourself time to grieve and experience all of your emotions. There are no quick fixes.
CBT exercises can help you spot unhealthy thinking patterns and redirect your thoughts in more productive ways. These exercises provide guidance for speaking to yourself with more compassion. They can help you focus on healing and growing instead of punishing yourself.
Although CBT exercises are a great place to begin when coping with a breakup, it’s also important to remember you’re not alone. It can be incredibly helpful to reach out to friends and family for support. You may even consider speaking with a mental health professional.