It can be hard to rationalize the intense and devastating emotions that come from a bad breakup. It may feel like the sky is falling; it may feel like you’re going to be alone forever; and it may feel like you’re never going to get over it.
But through science, all things are possible – even getting over an ex.
A team of researchers recently published a study on which cognitive strategies are the most effective methods for moving past a breakup. For the study, the team recruited the help of 24 people between the ages of 20 and 37. All of the heartbroken participants had been in a relationship for an average of 2 and a half years, and most of them were still in love with their ex; although, the causes for their breakups were varied.
Before the participants were passively shown pictures of their exes, the researchers asked them to use three different mental strategies to try and get over their exes. First, the participants were asked to focus on all of the negative things that they associated with their old partners so they would feel less upset about the breakup.
Secondly, they were asked to focus on feelings of acceptance towards their ex. By making peace with their emotions and acknowledging them without judgement, the participants might feel more accepting of themselves and the situation.
As a third strategy, they were asked to use mental distractions so they would be unable to focus entirely on the heartbreak.
Lastly, the researchers created a control strategy by asking the participants to do nothing when faced with the picture.
Based on the measurements of the participants’ neural activity, the study’s results showed that the negative reappraisal strategy worked best for reducing feelings of love and regret, but it also negatively affected the overall mood of the participants. The researchers suggest that this strategy could be used as an occasional regulator of emotional attachment – or, since the negative mental effects are likely to wear off through consistent use, it could be the most useful strategy.
The second strategy did not have any noticeable effect on their moods or feelings, but it did reduce their motivated attention towards their ex. The third strategy did not affect their feelings, but it did improve their overall moods.
“This suggests that in the context of a romantic break-up, negative reappraisal is an effective love down-regulation strategy, whereas distraction is an effective positive emotion up-regulation strategy,” says the researchers.
“Furthermore, all three strategies decreased motivated attention for the ex-partner, as indicated by a reduced amplitude of the late positive potential. This reduced motivated attention for the ex-partner could make it easier to deal with encounters of (reminders of) the ex-partner.”
So the next time you’re enduring a tricky heartbreak, the research shows that you can use negative reappraisal as an occasional method for weaning yourself off from those pesky feelings of longing – but if you want to face the heartbreak without the negative connotations, you can be confident that acceptance will make dealing with the situation steadily easier. Then, if you ever need to feel better, pursue the nearest distraction.
Though it was not mentioned in the study, our personal recommendation for distraction is a carton of ice cream and the nearest romantic comedy film.
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