Ending a relationship – Young people & mental health



From adolescence to early young adulthood, boys and girls are at a stage of exploring relationships of all kinds. Romantic relationship is often at the top of the list. Some young people have concerns about initiating a relationship, others may have concerns about maintaining and repairing relationships that are on a bumpy-ride.


Love & Mental Health


Clinical and research studies suggested that there is a correlation between relationship and mental health among young people. About one third of them struggle with relational conflicts in conjunction with mental health related issues when their relationships broke up. One-fifth of them have engaged in self-harming behaviours, and about ten percent of them have had thoughts of suicide. These data provided a good indicator for post-relationship period being the most vulnerable time for this age-group of young people due to their stage of development. The unexpected or/and an unwanted breakup can produce an immeasurable amount of impact on the psychological well-being of these young people particularly when their brains are at a stage of going through a ‘pruning process’ in which those parts of the brain that are actively stimulated will muscle-out other parts of the brain that are inactive and underused. What does this mean?


Breakups and Its Effect on Brain


Within the human brain, there is a part of it for rational thinking and another part of it for emotion processing. Stress comes with any break-ups has the power to make a person feel tired, exhausted, preoccupied and inattentive to anything else except the person and the experiences being with that person before the breakup. This phenomenon shows a picture of the emotional brain overpowering the thinking brain which is for rational thinking.

Some research studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans show ‘lighting up’ activity in several specific brain regions when rejected individuals see pictures of their ex-partners. These individuals report experiencing psychological pain in the same degree of having a physical pain. This means that rejection causing psychological pains has an equal magnitude to having physical pains. Within the human DNA structure, physical pain is a signal of a reaction to a life and death situation. This explains why many people who is going through a breakup will experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, and for some will even start having self-harming thoughts.


Rumination – a depression-like symptom


Now we know that our brains appear to process relationship breakups in the same regions as physical pain. If this is the case, it may explain partly how difficult it is for many people to let go of those thoughts of their ex-partner and move on. It is because their minds may continue to ruminate about what they could have done differently, how their ex-partners are feeling, places they used to go to together, people they used to hang out with, how they spent their time during holidays, and whether their ex-partners are having similar thoughts and missing the relationship. As a result, rumination will make the person focus more on unproductive thoughts and unmanageable emotional reactions at the expense of their physical and social needs.


Craving and Withdrawal


A Professor in the Department of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to recorded the brain activity of 15 college-age adults who had experienced a recent unwanted breakup, and they reported still feeling love for the ex-partner. When they were going through photos of their former partners, there was activity in the areas associated with the reward pathway where dopamine is released. Brain areas along this reward pathway when they are being stimulated, such as by caffeine or narcotics, dopamine is released to feed the craving. Therefore, people may experience cravings for their ex-partners similarly to the way people crave for coffee or drugs when they are going through a ‘drug withdraw’ – a reaction to stimulant being withdrawn from responding to the craving. This can lead to intense physical and psychological discomfort.




How do people going through a breakup help themselves?

There are all kinds of advice one can conveniently find through social media and websites. The best start is to talk to someone, a friend, a sibling, a parent, a co-worker, who you can trust and who will keep your stories in confidence. Take a step further if needed, talk to a qualified therapist to discuss those issues you need professional advice to deal with.