Personal Growth

How to Cope After a Breakup, According to Science

How did you get over your last breakup? Maybe you took out your frustration at the gym. Or you dusted off your favorite Linkin Park album and listened to it on repeat for a few days (or weeks). And in this day and age, maybe you hopped on Tinder to find a rebound. Science says that breakups can have serious short-term effects on your mental and physical well-being. Fortunately, new research has found the best way to get over 'em.

Related Video: What's the Deal with Post-Breakup Haircuts?

I Tried So Hard and Got So Far

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked at 24 young adults (aged 20-37) who were suffering from heartbreak after ending long-term relationships that lasted anywhere from two months to eight years. They were asked to test three different coping strategies, plus a control condition:

  1. Negative reappraisal of the ex-partner. This involved focusing on negative traits about the ex, like annoying habits or shortcomings. Many people do this naturally.
  2. Reappraisal of love feelings. Here, participants actually accepted their unrequited love in a non-judgmental way, and were encouraged to read and try to believe statements like "it's okay to love someone I'm no longer with." Think motivational quotes.
  3. Distraction. In the past, you've probably had friends who told you to "stay busy" after a breakup to keep your mind off your ex. That's the idea here; these participants were told to think about anything that didn't involve their ex in any way — their favorite food, for instance — and to keep those unrelated thoughts positive.
  4. Nothing. In this control condition, participants were instructed to not think about anything in particular. Easier said than done.

Researchers then connected participants to an encephalogram (EEG) to measure their brain's electrical activity while showing them photos of their ex. Specifically, the EEG measured late positive potential (LPP), which is "a measure of not only emotion but motivated attention, or to what degree the person is captivated by the photo," according to TIME's Andrew Gregory. That combined with a questionnaire the participants took provided the researchers with data on their emotional responses.

I Will Survive

The result? The good news is that if you've tried any of these strategies in the past, then you haven't completely wasted your time; all three approaches helped decrease the participants' emotional response compared to the control group when they were exposed to the photos of their exes. It's a good thing, too, since between Facebook, Instagram, and every other form of social media out there these days, it's pretty hard to avoid seeing photos of your ex — whether you're doing it on purpose or not.

Although emotional reactions to the photos were less intense than that of the control group regardless of the strategy, each one differed in how it affected two other dimensions: feelings of love towards the ex, and happiness. Negative reappraisal, for example, decreased feelings of love for the ex, but also decreased feelings of overall happiness, making participants feel more unpleasant than when they started. Love reappraisal resulted in no change in feelings of love or happiness. Distraction also left feelings of love unchanged, but it did make participants feel more pleasant.

"This suggests that in the context of a romantic break-up, negative reappraisal is an effective love down-regulation strategy," the authors wrote in the study, "whereas distraction is an effective positive emotion up-regulation strategy." That means that a mix of every strategy is probably your best bet for getting over that certain someone. But be careful. University of Missouri–St. Louis assistant professor of psychology and study co-author Sandra Langeslag told TIME that distraction "is a form of avoidance, which has been shown to reduce the recovery from a breakup." While it can provide a short-term mood boost, you shouldn't rely on it exclusively.

Langeslag added that feelings of romantic love don't work "like an on/off switch," which anyone who's gone through a breakup knows all too well. But this study can help you know where to start. Candice Jalili of Elite Daily reported that one of Langeslag's recommendations, specifically, is "writing a list of your ex's bad qualities every single day until you start feeling better." With technology only making it more difficult to stay emotionally stable in a state of heartbreak, here's hoping that more research like this will help people know just how to check out of the Heartbreak Hotel.

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For more guidance getting through your breakup, check out "Left Alone to Learn: The Break-Up Book" by Michael Eli Vineberg. It's free with a trial of Audible, and if you make a purchase using this link, then Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Cody Gough June 29, 2018

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