Effects of a breakup

Breakups are never easy. The end of a relationship can flip your world upside down and trigger a range of emotions. Some people quickly accept the demise of a relationship and move on, but others may deal with depression.

This can be a heartbreaking time, and it can feel as if your world is falling apart. But while sadness and a heightened emotional state are normal reactions after a breakup, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of depression.

Since symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe, it’s often difficult to know whether sadness and grief are a normal reaction to a breakup or a sign of something more serious like depression.

It’s okay to grieve the loss of a relationship as you begin the healing process. But this doesn’t suggest that every emotion you feel is a normal reaction. There are healthy and unhealthy symptoms of a breakup. Knowing the differences between these symptoms can help you determine whether you’re experiencing depression.

Healthy symptoms of a breakup may include:

  • anger and frustration
  • crying and sadness
  • fear
  • insomnia
  • loss of interest in activities

These symptoms are troublesome. But if you’re experiencing a normal reaction to the breakup, your emotional state will improve little by little as you adjust to life without your partner. The amount of time it takes to heal varies for each person, so be patient.

While it’s normal to feel sadness and pain after a breakup, you should talk to a doctor if your symptoms don’t start to improve after a few weeks, or if they get worse. To be diagnosed with depression, you must experience at least five of the following nine symptoms for a period of at least two weeks:

  • feeling sad, empty, or hopeless for most of the day nearly every day
  • loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • weight loss and loss of appetite, or increase of appetite and weight gain
  • sleeping either too little or too much
  • an increase in movements like pacing or hand wringing, or having significantly slower speech and movement
  • feeling as if you have no energy for most of the day
  • feeling worthless
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • thoughts about death, also called suicidal ideation

Depression can happen to anyone after a breakup, but some people are at greater risk. The cause of depression varies, but you may experience these feelings if you have a personal history of depression or another mood disorder. Other factors that may contribute to depression after a breakup include hormonal changes or simultaneously enduring another major change in your life, such as a job loss or the loss of a loved one.

Recognizing signs of depression after a breakup and getting help for this condition can lower the risk of complications. If left untreated, you may rely on alcohol or drugs to numb emotional pain. Depression also takes a toll on your physical health. You may experience joint pain, headaches, and unexplained stomach pain. Additionally, chronic stress can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Emotional eating can cause excessive weight gain and increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Other complications of depression may include:

  • panic attacks
  • problems at home, work, or school
  • suicidal thoughts

See a doctor if your symptoms don’t start to improve in two to three weeks.

Based on your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant to help you cope with your emotions. These include:

  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and paroxetine (Paxil)
  • serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, such as duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR)
  • tricyclic antidepressants, such as imipramine (Tofranil) and nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors, such as tranylcypromine (Parnate) and phenelzine (Nardil)

Make sure you understand the risks of taking antidepressants. Some medications can cause sexual side effects, increased appetite, insomnia, and weight gain.

Talk to your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or worsen, or if you have severe side effects. Your doctor can adjust your dosage or recommend a different medication. Depending on the severity of depression after a breakup, your doctor may recommend counseling or psychotherapy to help you cope with your feelings, especially if you’ve had suicidal thoughts.

Ways to cope with depression that don’t involve professional help include:

Exercise: Physical activity can strengthen your immune system and boost your energy. Exercise also increases your body’s production of endorphins, which can improve your mood. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity at least three times a week.

Keep busy: Explore hobbies and keep your mind occupied. If you’re feeling depressed, read a book, go for a walk, or start a project around the house.

Get plenty of sleep: Getting plenty of rest can also improve your mental well-being and help you cope after a breakup.

Herbal and natural remedies: If you don’t want to take a prescription medication, ask your doctor about supplements used for depression, such as St. John’s wort, S-adenosylmethionine or SAMe, and omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil. Some supplements can’t be combined with prescription medication, so consult your doctor beforehand. You can also explore alternative therapies for depression, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and meditation.

Online therapy options

Read our review of the best online therapy options to find the right fit for you.

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Getting through a breakup is easier when you receive support from family and friends. You don’t have to go through this alone, so surround yourself with positive people who encourage you. If you’re feeling lonely or scared, call a loved one and make social plans.

Avoid negative people who may judge or criticize you. This can worsen depression and make it harder for you to heal after a breakup.

You can also fight loneliness and depression after a breakup by cultivating new friendships and reconnecting with old friends. Get together with a few co-workers for lunch or dinner, or get involved in your community to meet new people. Join a club, take a class, or volunteer in your spare time.

Even if your depression isn’t severe enough for psychotherapy, it may be helpful to join a support group. Look for breakup and divorce support groups near your home, or choose a support group for mental illness and depression. You’ll meet people who’ve gone through the same experience, plus learn techniques to cope with your emotions.

Despite the rollercoaster ride of a breakup, it’s possible to heal and overcome mental anguish. The outlook is positive with treatment, but it’s important that you don’t ignore prolonged negative feelings and sadness. The healing process varies for each person. But with the help of friends, family, and maybe a doctor, you can overcome depression and move on after a relationship ends.

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Sources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration