Part II: Behavioral Strategies for Working Through a Breakup

In our last post on working through a romantic breakup, we discussed cognitive strategies to manage distortions in thinking that can arise during times of significant emotional distress. While addressing cognitive distortions is a critical part of making it through the breakup process healthier and stronger, there are other things you can do to make the experience less painful and more productive. In this post, we will discuss behavioral interventions that help as well.

For many women, the period after a breakup involves a major shift in behavior. Some women find themselves withdrawing from social interactions and hunkering down in an effort to heal in private; while others find comfort engaging networks of friends or family to provide emotional support. There are many things a woman can do to help boost her mood, and breakup tips abound focusing on self-care, refreshing your space or look, or avoiding contact with your ex. While these may be effective strategies for some, at CTWPS we like to use a more structured behavioral approach that can have long term benefits for a woman struggling through a breakup. This approach is called “Behavioral Activation.”

For many, recovery from a breakup takes longer than one would like because the coping strategies we employ often exacerbate the low mood that accompanies a breakup. The behaviors associated with depressed feelings are designed to keep us in that state; for example, isolating, avoiding work or social engagements, ruminating, or using substances. When sadness and grief leads to inactivity and withdrawal, we have fewer and fewer opportunities for positive experience, pleasure, or healing, which perpetuates the experience of depression. Behavioral activation is the answer to this vicious cycle, helping a woman take control of her behaviors in a productive, growth-filled way. It is a critical component of healing effectively from a breakup, and at CTWPS this is an approach we use often to help alleviate distress around a major life change. Behavioral activation involves several steps:

1) Activity and mood monitoring: The first step in behavioral activation during a time of emotional distress is to closely monitor one’s activity, and the feelings associated with it, for one week. We ask our clients to keep a log or spreadsheet of the activities she does every day, along with a rating of how she feels during each activity. Even when we are feeling our worst, our moods are still fluctuating, even slightly, over the course of the day. Activity and mood monitoring gives us important data to see when we feel slightly worse, and when we feel slightly better. From the monitoring chart, we can begin to generate a list of the activities that are associated with better mood, and those associated with lower mood.

2) Self-scheduling: With this activity and mood monitoring data, clients can begin scheduling more of the behaviors associated with better mood. For example, a woman who tracks her activity for a week after her breakup discovers that looking at her ex’s Instagram, googling breakup tips, and laying in bed for an extra 20 minutes in the morning are all associated with lower mood. She finds that listening to a podcast on her commute to work, running out for a quick coffee with a colleague, and talking to an old friend on the phone are all associated with slightly improved mood. The following week, she will make a point of scheduling more coffee and lunch dates with friends, more catch-up calls, and more time out of the house listening to podcasts. It sounds so simple! However, this step of scheduling is critical, and has two major benefits: the first, of course, is the increase in pleasurable activity, which can have a powerful impact on mood. The second benefit is that after a breakup one’s usual schedule may be thrown off; the joint activities with her ex have ceased, and her routine is shaken up. Taking control of one’s routine and establishing stability and predictability is a crucial factor in healing from a breakup. 

3) Focus on values, pleasure, mastery, and goals: As a woman finds herself more effectively self-scheduling better-mood activities, she can begin to shift her focus to growth and development. As we often say at CTWPS, the hardest times in life provide the best opportunities to become stronger and more resilient! The next stage of behavioral activation involves getting more specific about one’s better-mood activities, and breaking down those behaviors into the following categories:

                                      Values:     what I find meaningful

Pleasure: what feels good to me, the ways I play.

Mastery:   how I achieve, accomplish, develop skills

In doing this exercise, a woman not only dedicates time and attention to developing herself, but she also addresses one of the major challenges of a breakup - reestablishing one’s identity. After a breakup, many women are left with a question of “who am I without my ex?” This stage of behavioral activation is critical to reconnecting with oneself, and defining oneself in terms of one’s values, pleasures and sense of mastery. In doing so she can begin to develop goals - targeting her choices to involve all of the above - with the intention of living life fully and meaningfully.

4) Troubleshoot: Of course, there will be moments in the early stages of breakup grief during which a woman may feel that familiar rush of sadness. It is in these moments that it is especially critical to stick to the behavior plan! If an activity feels too overwhelming in a particularly hard moment, that’s okay - just pick a less strenuous activity for that moment. For example, a woman several weeks after a breakup is feeling a lot better, but opens Instagram to find a photo of her ex in someone else’s post. She feels momentarily shaken, and old feelings of sadness rush back in. She was scheduled to do a grueling workout that afternoon, but feels less energy as a result of her sadness. After reminding herself that any form of physical activity will help her mood, she decides instead to take a long walk around the park while listening to music. Despite ups and downs, her commitment to behavioral activation will ultimately get her the long term benefits she is seeking. In the language of CBT, we say “action before motivation” - even when you’re not feeling like it, do the behavior anyway - the long term benefits are worth it!

Breakups can be some of the most painful losses in life, though with the right cognitive and behavioral coping strategies emotional distress can be substantially reduced. At CTWPS we are here to help you through these difficult transitions. We aim to not only to mitigate the pain, but to help you develop yourself through the experience - coming out of the process stronger than before.