Breakups are the worst — but science, comes to the rescue, identifying how to best minimize emotional fallout.
The higher you rise, the harder you fall. With love being one of the most powerful emotions we feel, its end can bring some of the most heartwrenching moments we ever experience. After a particularly painful breakup, it’s hard to believe you’ll ever recover. Persistent and pervasive feelings of depression, anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia, and loss of appetite are all common in the recently-brokenhearted. Perhaps most infuriating — in my experience, at least — is when people tell you that it will get better in time. It just feels like a hollow pat on the back that doesn’t actually fix anything.
Taking the edge off
But what does work, then? New research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis suggests that there are some acts of mental gymnastics you can try post-breakup to help you get over your ex.
The study included 24 participants aged between 20 and 37 who had recently ended long-term relationships (average length 2.5 years) and who were — quite understandably — quite distressed. They were asked to try out several cognitive strategies to help them recover:
- Thinking negatively about their ex.
- Accepting their feelings of love towards their former partners without judgment — a strategy called “reappraisal of love feelings”.
- Good old-fashioned distraction — participants were encouraged to think about positive things that didn’t involve their ex in any way.
- Not thinking of anything in particular.
Each strategy was tried out separately from the others in controlled situations, so the results of each could be assessed independently. After trying out these strategies, the team showed participants photographs of their exes while recording their emotional response using an electroencephalogram. Participants were also asked to fill in a questionnaire describing their feelings.
All three strategies managed to decrease participants’ emotional response to the photos of their exes, the team reports.
The first strategy (negative reappraisal) decreased participants’ feelings of love but also degraded their overall mood. The second strategy (love reappraisal) didn’t change participants’ state in any way — it didn’t affect either how in love they felt, nor their overall well-being.
Distraction didn’t change feelings of love but did make participants feel happier. While that may sound like the perfect salve, the team says it probably won’t work in the long run — it’s more of a short-term coping mechanism, not a cure.
“Distraction is a form of avoidance, which has been shown to reduce the recovery from a breakup,” said lead author Sandra Langeslag for TIME.
“Negative reappraisal is an effective love down-regulation strategy, whereas distraction is an effective positive emotion up-regulation strategy” the team concludes about these methods.
Love regulation, which the team defines as “the use of behavioural or cognitive strategies to change the intensity of current feelings of romantic love,” is a promising phenomenon — but it’s “not an on/off switch,” the team notes.
“To make a lasting change, you’ll probably have to regulate your love feelings regularly,” Langeslag added.
However, there is good news: all three strategies could help us deal with those painful real-life encounters with our exes, the team notes.
The paper “Down-regulation of love feelings after a romantic break-up: Self-report and electrophysiological data” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.