Can a Breakup Lead to Depression?

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptive to change - Charles Darwin.

A breakup can cause stress. Stress can lead to depression.

Here's how:

First, the role of stress in the development, expression, and exacerbation of depression is well established. (ref 1-4).

1.  (Stressful Life Events, Chronic Difficulties, and the Symptoms of Clinical Depression -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc... )

2.  (Major Life Events and Major Chronic Difficulties Are Differentially Associated With History of Major Depressive Episodes
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc... )

3. (Stressful life events, genetic liability, and onset of an episode of major depression in womenStressful life events, genetic liability, and onset of an episode of major depression in women.)

4. (Stress and depressionStress and depression. )

Major depression is one of the most common and one of the most disabling psychological conditions. The impairment resulting from depression is severe, not only because of the pervasive impact of an episode of the disorder on the afflicted individual’s life, but also because of the high likelihood that depression will recur, often repeatedly, over the course of their lives. So when a breakup happens to a person, if they aren’t somewhat prepared and resilient, that breakup can be a substantial pivot point in their lives that might adversely affect them for years. And if that relationship dissolution put them into a tailspin, how are they going to respond when struck by the additional slings and arrows of life e.g. death of their parents.

Stress also has a long term negative effect on circuits in the brain responsible for regulating emotions. (ref 5-7)

5. In stressful situations such as military training, US cadets report decreased ratings of pleasure in response to positive provocations
(The effect of stress on hedonic capacity.)

6. Women under acute stress produced by threat of shock show blunted reward responsiveness.
(Acute stress reduces reward responsiveness: implications for depression. )

7. Individuals reporting higher levels of stress in the recent past show reduced reward learning (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc... )

People who have stress over time can end up having their emotion regulation circuitry compromised causing it to take longer to recover from stressful events and get back to a normal baseline. (Prolonged Marital Stress is Associated with Short-Lived Responses to Positive Stimuli https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc...)   That study had also shown that subjects were quick to feel negative emotions after the conditioned stimulus was presented and would stay in that stress state for longer. It’s like they’ve trained themselves to prefer emotional pain. They spend more time there so perhaps it seems most comfortable. And it’s like they dislike pleasure because when looking at pleasant stimuli, it would take them longer to make sense of positive images and when they did, those positive feelings were brief. Richie Davidson, the principal neuroscientist for that paper wrote that the untrained people are slow to recover and that they perseverate. Too much time thinking about the ex and feeling the stress of it repeatedly is won't make things better.

So recovering successfully after a breakup takes some skills. Not just for being able to bounce back, but skills to prevent sinking into the abyss due to the stress linkage to depression and the compromised emotion regulation circuitry.

Another contribution to depression the stress of a breakup can deliver is weakened reward circuitry. Fun becomes … funless.
(Increased Perceived Stress is Associated with Blunted Hedonic Capacity: Potential Implications for Depression Research
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc...)

This is why marital stress is associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric disorders, in particular major depression. A person can’t move forward after a breakup if the tools for moving forward are compromised.

Depending on a persons background and history with adversity, a breakup might be the worst thing they’ve experienced so far in life and they haven’t the history or support to get over it.

People that don’t move forward after a breakup are usually clinging to a model of the world that no longer exists. They believe the ex is ‘the one’ and that their future is over without the ex. Some would rather die than change their beliefs. They focus on the past so much it becomes a habitually practiced skill. They get really good at feeling bad. That just puts them into a nosedive that can make escaping quite difficult, especially if they keep replaying old memories with strong emotions. “I cant get them back. They were the one. I miss him/her so much. I can’t live without them. I have no future without them. I think about them everyday".  That kind of thinking is not going to cultivate resilience.

Feel bad long enough and the ability to bounce back gets harder and harder because this thinking becomes more stable and automatized. They start to believe their own lies and cognitive distortions. 'I’m worthless, I’m garbage, nobody will love me like that again, theres nothing to live for, nothing is enjoyable, I’ve lost everything, the light has gone out in my life.’

Then with all this sabotage going on under the hood, they feel worthless and stop doing anything solution based. e.g consistently focusing and working on rebuilding a new life and better brain via meditation, strategies.

Now, if there are no new experiences, the hippocampus begins to shrink because there are no new memory formations.  Hippocampus is attributed with the consolidation of information from short term memory to long-term memory.  What happens with a hippocampus that decreases in size due to a lack of new experiences?  For this answer, a quote from Robert Sapolsky... "This structure plays a critical role in learning and memory, and the magnitude of the hippocampal volume loss (nearly 20% in some reports; see bullets. 8, 9, 10) helps explain some well-documented cognitive deficits that accompany major depression.'

8. Hippocampal atrophy in recurrent major depression.

9.  Depression duration but not age predicts hippocampal volume loss in medically healthy women with recurrent major depression.

10. Hippocampal volume reduction in major depression

Linda Graham writes ’Unless new experiences cause a rewiring of the old circuits, the patterns of coping we learned (even if they aren’t working) become our default responses to life’s set backs. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.’ - Bouncing Back- Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well Being. by Linda Graham, MFT

With all the continual stress and strain and focus on the past, their brain is helping them go deeper down a rough, painful, slow, sad road. More intrusive rumination, guilt, anger, sadness, shame, disappointment. It’s a habit. The ex is like a drug to the brain, the brain wants a hit of excitement so it goes to memories linked to pleasure, they start thinking of the past, pleasure is linked to the ex, that memory is brought forth and sometimes re-traumatize themselves by reopening an old unhealed unresolved wound and on it goes.

In Carol Dwecks book, ‘Mindset: Psychology of Success’, she writes about the difference in thinking between winners and losers. Winners have flexible mindsets. Losers have rigid, inflexible thinking.
What would happen to the car manufacturers or Apple if they stopped innovating? What happened to Blockbuster when it knew Netflix was coming down the line? Blockbuster held on to their same business model hoping patrons would still come in on a Friday night and pick up a VHS movie like always. Times changed, Blockbuster didn’t. Now they’re an example of how mental rigidity is a VIP pass to extinction. Ok almost extinction, there’s a blockbuster or two still around. In a nutshell, evolve or die. But it’s difficult if the evolve tools are compromised.

And that’s some of what’ can lead to depression with people that don’t get over a breakup. Although some folks  might have been off center before the relationship started and then the breakup might have been the tipping point that called out their emotional style. A person might not know they’re bad at getting over stuff until it happens.

The brain rewires itself in response to experience, so if bad experiences and thoughts of the past is the main food for thought, that’s going to result in an impoverished brain and its going to want stimulation. Time to bring in the internet, alcohol, drugs or gambling, maybe become destructive & nihilistic to feel control over something in life.  People with a tough time moving on post-breakup are ones that haven’t got any big future plans, just a past that they keep replaying which eats their future. It’s not their fault. It’s their brain. Without supportive themes and right attention to get back on track, they can suffer a gradual burn that slowly turns hope into ashes.

Then there are some that get PTSD after a breakup due to ending a relationship with a violent narcissist. This is going to create nightmares and flashbacks, the typical symptoms of PTSD.

And this is why neuroplasticity is a double edged sword. Experience shapes the brain and can change the brains structure and functioning. However, a change doesn’t always mean it’s for the better. You can use your mind to change your brain…for the better or the worse.

Fortunately, there are mental training strategies for engaging self-directed neuroplasticity to increase resilience and bounce back after a breakup. Also, well being is a skill that can be cultivated so there is lots of hope and escape routes that enable people to bounce back after a breakup and in some instances, achieve their own form of post-traumatic growth.

Most important is recognizing the prodromal symptoms of depression and doing something about it like taking lithium or doing mental training strategies to rewire the brain back to a more functional state.


‘Any new experience rewires the brain in some way. When we want to direct that rewiring - for example, when we want to rewire specifically for resilience-it’s necessary to carefully choose the new experiences that will help create that new neural structure and rewire old pathways effectively, efficiently and safely. We can do so by using self-directed neuroplasticity by directing focused attention on specific new experiences or on old patterns that we want to rewire.’ - Bouncing Back- Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well Being. by Linda Graham, MFT

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