If you’re under the age of 26, your ability to inhibit negative emotional states will be weak due to an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex. This part of your brain doesn’t physiologically fully develop until your mid-twenties or so. This is why people under 25 are more prone to being victims of their own emotions. So if you’re in your mid twenties and are finding it hard to get over your ex, its not your fault, it’s your underdeveloped brain.
Can a person be stuck in sadness, depression and despair for life after a breakup if they’re over 25? Yes. Marital stress is associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric disorders, in particular major depression.
(Marital dissatisfaction and incidence of major depressive episode in a community sample.)
How can a breakup lead to depression?
One pathway through which marital stress may impact emotional health is by compromising emotion responding processes. This study had shown that marital stress is associated with a higher incidence of psychiatric disorders, in particular major depression and that the stress causes the circuits in our brain to get back to baseline slower and that we think more about negative events. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008713/)
Now if you’re over 25 and are still having a difficult time getting over the ex, its likely due to the amount of practice you’ve devoted to feeling bad which compromises your ability to get back to a neutral baseline emotional state. Since the brain responds to experience and you’ve practiced and replayed in your mind an abundance of memorized experiences related to the sadness of the breakup, your brain has wired itself in ways that aren’t beneficial for you…and this is common. Your life hasn’t ended, but it feels like it has and thats close enough to having an ended life because living in the past is nothing but a slow death. Nobody wants to walk around like a sad zombie for decades pantomiming through the motions of life.
Since the breakup you’ve developed a skill that you don’t want. Again, this is not your fault, its your brain. You’ve trained yourself to develop the neural circuitry that easily allows you to take that habitual route to crying and feelings of guilt, anger, sadness shame et al with greater ease. And the more this is done, the more it becomes ingrained as a default response associated to thoughts of the ex. If I throw you a ball, you’ll automatically move to catch it. If you think of your ex, you automatically move to sadness, crying, doom and gloom. But you don’t have to play catch and you don’t have to react with negative states of being. You do have a choice.
Certainly you know this already.
So what really is the problem?
In one word in can be summed up as 'addiction.'
This is not the entire picture, but it is a massive part of the problem and one that you may not have ever considered.
Consider what Dr Daniel Amen writes in the book 'Unleash the Power of the Female Brain.'
"Your thinking becomes obsessively focused on the person who rejected you. You can't think of anything else. And it hurts physically. You're going through the symptoms of withdrawal that are akin to what you'd be feeling if you were a drug addict trying to quit cocaine." - from Unleashing the Power of the Female Brain by Dr Daniel Amen
Another source with this view is Dr. Helen Fisher. She is a Biological Anthropologist, Chief Scientific Advisor to the dating site Chemistry.com and author of 'Why We Love', 'Anatomy of Love', 'Why Him, Why Her', and has done a Google Talk on the Anatomy of Love and a Ted Talk on the Brain in Love.
When she was asked for advice for people going through a breakup she says:
"It's an addiction. There's somebody camping in your head."
"Don't keep traumatizing yourself."
With this framework about the problem, let's get into solutions.
Your idea on keeping yourself ‘occupied’ is good although somewhat diluted. When Elon Musk was depressed and going through his divorce and about to lose Space X and Tesla, he didn’t have those companies to keep himself ‘occupied’. These projects weren’t mere distractions but were instead missions that he devoted himself too. Because he was committed to growing those businesses, he got a 1.5 billion dollar loan which salvaged both his companies and he later paid back that money with 20 million in interest. He got over his breakup not because of keeping himself occupied but by becoming obsessed on solutions. Being busy and being obsessed are two different things. So yes, any time off your ex is good, but your focus isn’t to be on mere petty tasks that aren’t ex related, but instead should be on things that excite you - big time. The challenge with that is you haven’t felt amazing in a long time so the idea of extreme positive emotional states might seem far fetched just like the notion of finding something that ignites you seems out of reach. In the marital stress study it had shown that depressed people can feel good, but only for brief moments before they quickly go back to sadness. This is because of practice.
How to retrain your brain to stop practicing doom and get back to life?
Due to neuroplasticity, which is your brains ability to rewire itself in response to experience, the thing to do now is give yourself the experiences that rewires your brain for the better and to stop doing the things that was making things worse.
This can begin by feeling good for no reason at all. Wake up and smile even if you think life sucks and there’s nothing to feel good about. Doing a half assed fake smile every morning and sporadically through the day will elevate neurochemicals in you and put you on the road to well being (that will begin to strengthen your ability to rebuild connections to more positive states of being and will start the process of decoupling negative emotional states to the ex since those neurons stop firing together and wiring together).
When you smile, the feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released. This relaxes your body, and can lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
The endorphins also act as a natural pain reliever - 100% organically and without negative side effects. (Neural correlates of conscious emotional experience. In R.D. Lane & L. Nadel (Eds.), Cognitive Neuroscience of emotion (pp. 345–370). New York: Oxford University Press.)
The serotonin release brought on by your smile also serves as an anti-depressant/mood lifter (Karren KJ, et al. Mind/Body Health: The Effect of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships. New York, N.Y.: Benjamin Cummings, 2010:461.)
Another strategy to get more control of your mind and emotions is to use affirmations. As a starter, here are 107 Affirmations for Confident Women.
"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." ~Thich Nhat Hanh
So that begins to bring in some good stuff, but it's not enough.
If you have a huge bag of rotting trash in your bedroom, you can open the window and honk a can of Febreze to help remove the stench, but the core problem remains.
You can install another window. You can get another air freshener, just like you can date other people, or find things to occupy your nose, but the solution is to throw out the trash. The memories you have of your ex is like the bag of trash. Memories can be altered in a way that changes the emotional meaning of what the ex represents. You can teach your brain that the ex is a thing to move away from and be rid of joyfully. You can throw out the bag of ex trash. Not because they are trash or not trash, but because thinking of him differently is mandatory for your own well being.
Consider a person that is fired from a job that pays $100k. Boo hoo. Life sucks, nobody loves me, I’m a failure, I’m a loser etc. Now let's say that person then finds a job or business that pays$250k. Was being fired from the first job a loss or a gain? Did being fired help or hurt? Was being fired a stepping stone to a greater space? Was your breakup a stepping stone to you having a better understanding of yourself which enables you to have a deeper appreciation and education for yourself and attract the better man coming down the line?
So it depends on the framework that you’ve created. By changing the frame, you change the experience. You’ve got to out-frame your problem with a solution that is far greater than the problem. Doing so allows you to have a cognitive reappraisal of the past experience in a way that enables you to move on with greater ease. Breaking up with that person might have been the best thing for you, but if you keep driving your focus on the ‘loss’, then all the opportunities for your growth, expansion and progress in your life gets smashed and shattered because you keep looking at the guard rail instead of the road ahead.
There are mental training strategies to reconsolidate memories of your ex. And there are strategies such as MBSR that can change your brain for the better e.g. building more connections from your prefrontal cortex to your amygdala which enables you to inhibit over excitation in the emotional part of your brain (limbic system) while increasing your capability to generate resilience. Wellbeing is a skill and is comprised of resilience, outlook, generosity and acceptance and all those things can be cultivated, but not if you don’t take proactive steps to practice moving your thinking in better directions.
Tina Turner - after her divorce became the queen of rock and roll.
Lady Gaga - after her breakup became a popstar icon.
Kathryn Bigelow - after her divorce from James Cameron, got her own movie nominated against Avatar and won. This broke an 80 year record at the Oscars of a woman director never winning best movie.
Elon Musk - after his divorce became a billionaire philanthropist that made huge advances for humanity in transportation.
Phil Fish - after his breakup he made an indie video game (Fez) that won awards and made him $500k in a day.
etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.
‘Failures’ are mandatory for progress.
What would make you feel excited about having a new start?
Keep focusing and inching towards things of that nature and once that new growth begins to bloom, you’ll be more grateful that your ex is an ex.