For HSPs, the emotional toll of a breakup can feel like riding a vicious wave where the nervous system cannot “right” itself. Here’s how to not drown.
Most people can agree: Breakups are hard, especially if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP). The process of ending a relationship, even for the right reasons, can feel impossibly difficult. Research has found this to be true, too. Among divorced couples in Britain, one study found that the stress leading up to a breakup — and the feelings immediately following — are subjectively similar. The researchers also found that mental health, and life satisfaction, improved significantly within the first year after the breakup.
While there is an end to the pain after a breakup, a year may feel like an eternity, especially if you are a highly sensitive person (HSP), which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the human population. HSPs are already more sensitive to pain than most, but the growing pains after a breakup can completely overwhelm one’s sensitive nervous system. The intensity is so strong that it feels like they will never recover.
However, as a therapist who has helped many of my clients go through a breakup, I’m here to tell you that there are ways to recover.
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5 Ways to Recover From a Breakup as an HSP
1. Ride the “breakup wave” and find comfort in self-soothing activities.
For HSPs, the emotional toll of a breakup can feel like riding a vicious wave where the nervous system cannot “right” itself. Research shows that any reminder of the other person can cause bodily responses, such as knots in the stomach, a racing heart, a sense of panic, or feeling completely shut down.
To this end, further research has found that a breakup can actually weaken the immune system and trigger the onset of illness. The term heart ache is not too far from the truth — and, for HSPs, there is an even greater experience of pain. That’s right, HSPs can feel physical pain longer and more intensely — and the same goes for the pain of emotional heartache.
So to combat an aching heart, it’s important to engage in self-soothing strategies. Taking time to rest, process, and find healthy ways to metabolize the pain are all important when healing from a breakup. According to HSP Psychotherapist Julie Bjelland, highly sensitive people benefit from at least two hours of unstructured alone time per day to help regulate their nervous system — and this is especially true when navigating a break up.
Alone time — and simply “doing nothing” — allows HSPs space to understand their experience and reflect on any lessons learned from the end of the relationship. Because HSPs readily seek depth and closeness in their relationships, even failed relationships can feel like an immense loss.
While it may be tempting to seek out comfort from one’s ex during the early stages after a breakup, don’t do it. Doing so can be detrimental to your healing, as HSPs readily absorb the emotions and energy of those around them, including those of their ex. This may result in a cyclical reentry into a relationship that was not healthy to begin with. In this way, the relationship, or ex, becomes a form of addiction the HSP fails to wean from.
So focus on you and your interests as best you can.
2. Be open to getting support from others, whether it’s a close friend or therapist.
For some HSPs, it may feel comforting to completely isolate after a breakup (and I know I suggested alone time above). However, it is important to choose at least one person to spend time with, allowing for opportunities to process the breakup, which will help speed up the process of moving through your heartache.
Spending time with others that provide comfort is not only helpful for anyone going through a breakup, but it is even more beneficial for an HSP. According to research done by Dr. Thomas Boyce, non-HSPs are less impacted by stressors in their environment as compared to HSPs, who are more negatively impacted by stressful environments, yet are also more influenced by positive ones. What this means is that the more positive people the HSP surrounds themselves with — and the more they engage in activities they love (such as hobbies, work, or other interests) — the sooner they will recover from the heartache of the breakup.
And if you don’t already have a therapist, you may want to seek one out, as they can help you create healthy coping mechanisms, as well as identify recurrent patterns in your romantic relationships. For instance, HSPs tend to fall for toxic relationships, and a therapist can help you uncover why.
3. Remove the relationship’s effect on you with radio silence.
It can be difficult to end the cycle of reconnection (whether it be directly with the ex, or through reading old texts, emails, or staying connected on social media). For this reason, it is helpful to have someone to be accountable to when trying to sustain a breakup. The better someone feels as a result of distancing themselves from their ex, the less likely they will feel dependent on the other person or the failed relationship. Essentially, the longer an HSP goes without having contact with their ex, the better they will feel.
Practicing “radio silence” is an important step in helping many HSPs heal their nervous system after a breakup. A benefit of not contacting the other person is that it helps reduce obsessive thought patterns. According to the book, The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People, by Shahida Arabi, M.A., an intermittent “reward,” like unexpectedly seeing an ex or hearing about them, creates a surge of reward chemicals in the brain. This does not mean the relationship should be rekindled; rather, it is a natural response from the nervous system when seeing an ex, which is even more intense for HSPs.
At times where the temptation to reach out becomes overwhelming, it can help to crowd in self-care practices that reinforce healthier ways to feel joy and comfort. Many refer to these practices as “dating oneself” as a means to redirect positive love and energy inward. Some ideas include:
- Grounding techniques, like breath practices, yoga, and meditation
- Writing (perhaps a goodbye letter to the ex — that you do not send — or a love letter to yourself ) or journaling about your emotions
- Drawing, painting, or other forms of art and creativity
- Getting out in nature, which helps reduce overstimulation for HSPs
- Reengaging in groups you may have been a part of before the breakup
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.
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4. If you need to still be in contact with the ex — if you have a child together, for instance — be sure to enact boundaries.
Sometimes there are instances where radio silence or cutting someone off cold turkey is not an option, such as if you share a child together. In those instances, it is helpful to continue implementing the idea of “crowding in” positive relationships and meaning and purpose into your life. In this way, you can do your best to experience emotional health and wellness.
Furthermore, by establishing limited contact while employing all potential boundaries (i.e., only communicating via email or text if necessary), it’ll help increase a sense of safety and control. This allows for your HSP nervous system to better regulate when contact with an ex occurs.
5. Finally, give yourself time and compassion.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that getting over someone will take time, so have a lot of compassion and love for yourself. Plus, understanding that it is normal for HSPs to experience more intense, lengthier pain as a result of a breakup is an important step in healing.
Similarly, removing self-criticism offers more room for growth, and wisdom that conscientious HSPs are likely to experience as a result of a breakup. Compassion, patience, and seeking outward positive input will help empower you. Although friends and family may say, “You should get back out there!” only you will know when you’re ready — and there really is no rush.
You might like:
- 8 Ways to Survive a Breakup as a Highly Sensitive Person
- Why Highly Sensitive People Keep Falling for Toxic Relationships — And How to Stop
- How ‘Doing Nothing’ Does Something Big for HSPs
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