Image: @cassdimicco

Written by Amy Chan.

After a breakup, while you logically might know the relationship is over, you body and brain is in a state of shock. It’s used to getting its feel good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin from the relationship, and now that supply is cut off – and you feel like you’re in withdrawal. 

This is when I hear people say, “I feel like I’m going crazy.” 

Yes, it can feel like that because you’re recalibrating to a new equilibrium without your partner – this is normal. You’re supposed to feel a flood of intense emotions. Not feeling anything after a separation with someone you loved or felt deeply for would be considered ‘not normal.’ In the beginning stage of shock, you’re not supposed to fast forward out of the feelings. You’ve got to feel the emotions in order to process them, and move on. So if you’re fresh out of a breakup, don’t feel the pressure to ‘do something’ to get out of the feelings stage – sit with it, be with it. It will pass. 

That being said, there are ways we cope with the pain. Coping is a learned strategy to help us deal with the discomfort and difficult emotions we are dealing with. There’s adaptive coping strategies and maladaptive. 

Note – defence mechanisms are not the same as coping mechanisms (although they share similarities). Defence mechanisms are unconscious and people are typically unaware that they are using them. Coping mechanisms are conscious and purposely used to manage the situation. 

Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms 

Maladaptive coping mechanisms are things we do that make us feel better in the short term, but have negative and harmful effects in the long-term. We get a brief distraction from the uncomfortable feelings but this doesn’t help us heal, it only enables us to procrastinate dealing with the emotions. These include alcohol and substance abuse, self-harm, binge eating, and sexual promiscuity. They also include more subtle mechanisms such as emotional numbing (shutting down), avoidance, rumination, self-blame, people pleasing and disassociation (leaving your body), to name a few. 

Often these maladaptive coping mechanisms were learned from our primary caregivers and were a way of self-preservation. But repeated over time, they become ingrained and become the go-to reaction when dealing with stressful events. Maladaptive coping delays the pain, it doesn’t heal it. 

Adaptive Coping Mechanisms 

Adaptive coping strategies are actions we take to self-soothe, reduce stress, and generate feelings of safety. They involve addressing the problem or issue at hand directly while being grounded in reality and in the present moment. They are healthy ways of dealing with the emotions and stress of the situation. Here are some ways that you can use adaptive coping to deal with the breakup or divorce. 


1. Talk it out.
In the shock and denial stage of separation, talking about how you’re feeling helps you process what just happened. Talking it out with people you trust and feel safe around will help you gradually accept the new reality of life without your partner. Seeking external support from friends, family or mental health professionals instead of isolating can help reduce stress and minimize anxiety and depression. 

2. Start a self-compassion ritual. 

In the words of compassion expert, Kristen Neff – self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. It’s a way of relating to yourself with kindness and care, and accepting that the present moment may be painful, but you can still hold yourself with love and connection.Self-compassion is a muscle you build. When you first start, you might feel an acceleration of pain, or have thoughts that the exercise is stupid or contrived, but that’s not a sign for you to stop – it’s a sign that you’re hitting an edge and to continue with the practice. It’s okay to pause if you feel overwhelmed, but don’t abort the effort. Practicing compassion helps relieve feelings of stress and anxiety. This is not woo-woo, it’s backed by scientific research. 

If you historically view yourself with shame and self-judgement, know that scrutinizing your inadequacies and seeing yourself as defected triggers an adverse biological response. You release stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine which only minimizes your cognitive flexibility and capacity to learn. 

You can start a ritual aimed at practicing self-compassion each day. You can do self-compassion meditations or write yourself a letter of self-compassion by acknowledging the parts of you that feel inadequate and unworthy, and then viewing it with unconditional love and acceptance. You can check out this resource for more self-compassion exercises.

3. Interrupt the rumination cycle. 

You might not be able to control the thought that pops into your mind, but you can choose to feed that thought or redirect it into something more positive. Observe when you’re caught in a thinking trap (cognitive distortion). Next, close your eyes and visualize a big red stop sign. Then say the word STOP! out loud. 

Finally, it’s time to redirect the negative talk to positive affirmations. Create a set of coping statements that you can repeat to yourself when your mind is off to the races. 

I’m going to face this challenge and do my best. 

I’ve been in this situation before and survived. 

I’m strong enough to handle this. 

This feeling will pass. The situation is temporary. 

4. State change.
When you’re feeling anxiety, you might experience a sense of panic. What’s happening is your body is producing cortisol and adrenaline to prepare you for action – fight/flight. That’s why you might feel compelled to send that angry text, or call your ex and berate them, your body is energized and prepared for action. But this knee-jerk reaction is often something you’ll regret when you’re back to a calm, logical state. 

To let your body and mind recalibrate, do a state change. Exercise, go for a jog or set your timer for 2 minutes and shake your body from head to toe. This will allow the stress hormones to move through your body and metabolize them. After, calm your nervous system down by doing deep breaths, make sure your exhale is longer than your inhale.  

5. You can change your brain.

Whether you developed maladaptive coping strategies in childhood or later on in life, the great news is that they are not fixed. Our brain’s neuroplasticity enables us to replace unhelpful behaviour with updated, healthier actions. The more you practice, the more natural it becomes, until eventually, you automatically respond to stress with adaptive coping mechanisms. 

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