What Happens When A Breakup Becomes Depression?

Sarah Jacoby

Truthfully, I don't remember how I've gotten through most of my breakups. That's because they made me so depressed that I spent them watching TV and essentially becoming the filling of a Snuggie-and-couch sandwich. It just so happens that forgetting these particularly low moments of my life is one coping mechanism my brain has chosen to keep me going. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthy one. And, unfortunately, that's why those of us who deal with depression have to be prepared to take a few extra precautions when it comes to breakups.

"It’s normal to be sad after the end of a relationship, have a bit of an empty feeling, and question yourself," says Michael Brustein, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. "But, ultimately, although you're sad, you still have your sense of self intact and feel lovable — you're able to maintain the hope and belief that there will be somebody else."

However, those darker feelings of depression can easily overlap with our usual sentiments after the end of a relationships. "Some of the hallmark features of depression are feelings of helplessness and worthlessness and a loss of hope for the future," says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a psychologist in New York City.

It's the worthlessness in particular that Dr. Carmichael says has a lot of potential for fueling depression: "When somebody literally abandons you," she says, "sometimes the message that we hear is 'I didn’t value you enough to have you in my life.' That can be a hit on your self-worth."

Along with with other major emotional life events (e.g. losing your job or the death of a loved one) breakups can absolutely trigger depressive episodes — especially if you've experienced an episode before. But it's not always easy to tell where a reasonable sense of loss ends and actual depression begins.

If you feel your sadness morph into a more all-encompassing hopelessness, Dr. Brustein says that's definitely a sign that you may be heading down a more serious road. "If you start to feel defective as a result of the breakup — you start judging your entire sense of self based on the breakup — that's a sign that it's leading to significant distress," he says.

Other signals you might notice include changes in your appetite, sleeping habits, hygiene, or ability to concentrate. All of those are classic signs of depression, Dr. Brustein says, and the key is that they don't go away. "The first 30 days or so is just part of the natural grieving process," Dr. Carmichael says. But if, after that, you're still feeling deep sadness or as if "the end of this relationship signifies the end of your dating life in general, that means you’re probably catastrophizing," she says.

And that definitely indicates you could use some professional support. If you're someone who has experienced depression in the past, it's likely you're already in therapy or know when and how to get back into it. However, if this is the first time you've considered counseling, finding a therapist can be a daunting process — check out our quick-and-dirty guide over here.

In addition to professional counseling, Dr. Carmichael suggests building community into your schedule post-breakup. For instance, try setting up a weekly brunch with your friends or taking a class to learn a new skill. "It might sound cheesy," she says, "but this is the time when you want to go over the top with making sure you don't isolate yourself."

Keeping a journal of positive things that have happened to you every day — including everything from a great latte to a fascinating article you read — is another way to keep yourself from falling into a negative thought pattern, says Dr. Brustein. But he also cautions against jumping into a new relationship right away: Although you might be hungry for companionship, it's in these vulnerable moments when we tend to end up with someone who really isn't right for us.

"However, in time, when you're feeling more confident, you'll start dating other people and forming new connections," he says. And that, in itself, can be healing.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.

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