This Simple Mind Trick Can Help You Get Over A Breakup

When you're knee-deep in a breakup, nothing makes sense. You're not just emotionally wounded, but your physical body aches too. Getting out of bed and functioning is something that many people struggle with in the days and weeks following a breakup, and the only thought that keeps coming to mind is, "When will this pain stop?" To which the answer from friends and family is always, "Just give it time." But when your heart is broken, time drags on and on, feeling like an eternity (and that's not an exaggeration). Because of this, researchers have been looking for ways to ease the emotional and physical suffering that comes with post-breakup sadness.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found three strategies that help in alleviating pain during a breakup. To no major surprise, staying distracted was one of them, but so was a negative reappraisal of the ex and love reappraisal, in which the study's participants accepted that they were still in love. Although all three strategies reduced the emotional responses that were experienced when looking at photos of the exes, it was only the negative reappraisal, in which respondents were asked to revisit annoying or aggravating traits of their ex, that also diminished feelings of love. In other words, believing your ex is a nightmare human just might be what you need to get over them. But, like lots of things, there's a caveat to it.

What is negative reappraisal?

Negative reappraisal is a form of cognitive reframing. You're taking what you think and know about a person, situation, or whatever it may be, and changing your thoughts about it. It's a matter of regulating your feelings so you can manipulate them into what you need them to be for your own mental health. Of course, revising your thoughts for your own benefit is nothing new. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), patients who have negative thoughts are taught how to reframe them to be positive. So negative reappraisal is just the opposite of that.

"One of the core elements of cognitive behavioral therapy is that there's an intervening step: How we interpret those situations. It's our interpretations of those events that lead us to feel certain things and behave in certain ways," behavior psychologist Jay Fournier told CNN. "One of the first things we would have people do is just notice their thinking."

It ultimately comes down to tapping into your self-awareness, a necessary component of being able to cognitively reframe, and harnessing your thoughts before they can cause an emotional response. When you're able to mindfully recognize the link between your thoughts and feelings, you're able to regulate your emotions that bubble up as a response.

Why it works

When you've been in love, no matter how long or how short the relationship, and you're suddenly without that person, romanticizing the past is a route we tend to take. "When we remove details, it's in our human nature to naturally eliminate the negative aspects before we eliminate the positive ones," life coach Katie Sandler told Well + Good. "It's all about self-preservation." But if we can entangle ourselves from that thinking and put a more realistic spin or even a negative one on that past through reframing, it can be beneficial in the healing process. 

"The idea of reframing your thoughts starts with accepting that not all your thoughts are true just because you have them," licensed clinical psychologist Regine Galanti, Ph.D. told SELF. "A thought is like a pair of sunglasses. If you look at the world through sunglasses, things look a little different. Reframing your thoughts is like taking off your sunglasses or putting on another pair with a different lens. You're asking, 'How can I look at this a different way?'" 

When you question what you once believed to be true, you're challenging it. You're taking it apart and realizing that perhaps your partner wasn't as magnificent the person that you thought they were. Maybe they were kind of awful. 

How to make it work for you

In our social media-obsessed culture, negative reappraisal is a great skill to master because trying to escape an ex can be impossible. It seems we can't look anywhere without seeing images that remind us of our past loves and this, of course, prolongs the pain. But in practicing negative reappraisal in the same way one might practice positive reaffirmations, you can manipulate your thinking, thereby changing the outcome of your emotions. It just takes practice, effort, and the Three C Method: catch it, check it, change it.

Invented by psychologist Aaron Beck, the Three C Method concerns catching the initial thought before it affects your emotions, checking it to see if it's healthy for you, and then changing it if you deduce the thought doesn't serve you well. You'll know the Three C Method is working for you when you're able to make your initial thoughts inherently secondary without having to catch and check; the change is automatic, per Psychology Today

How you choose to enact this strategy is up to you. For some, the Three C Method is established best through repetition, while for others it might involve making exhaustive lists of your ex's negative traits. "Love regulation doesn't work like an on/off switch," biological and cognitive psychologist Sandra Langeslag told Time. "To make a lasting change, you'll probably have to regulate your love feelings regularly." In other words, you need to stick to it. 

Why negative reappraisal might not be best for everyone

Although the science is there, there's one caveat worth mentioning: it can cause short-term distress. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, while negative reappraisal can decrease emotional response and feelings of love for an ex, it can also make you feel even worse. However, the study's respondents who relied on distraction to cope with a breakup fared better. While the distraction didn't minimize feelings of love, the day-to-day managing of the heartbreak was easier. Because of this, using all three strategies may be the healthiest way to process the end of a relationship. 

If you find yourself in the throes of a breakup, it's important to remember just how much everything you're feeling is linked to your brain chemistry. As a 2017 study published in Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology found, love affects the brain the same way a drug like cocaine does, making love equally addictive. When that drug (our partner) is no longer in our life, the brain goes through withdrawal just like it would with any sort of street drug. The brain has been conditioned to think in certain terms, so techniques like cognitive reframing, distraction, and love reappraisal are great options when trying to gain control of your brain again. But no matter which methods you use, more than anything, you need to remember it's going to take time. Falling in love doesn't happen overnight, and neither does falling out of it.