Breakups can be incredibly stressful things. While many of us get over our heartbreak with a few singalongs to break-up anthems and late-night brownies, for others the healing process can be more intense, or even traumatic. If you have a friend who's just called it quits with their SO, it can be difficult to know whether their reactions are proportionate and will pass, or if they need help getting over their breakup. In some cases, big emotional events like breakups can go beyond ordinary heartbreak and evolve into what's called situational depression, or adjustment disorder — a condition where stressful issues cause a temporary but serious shift in emotional state. And that's where it's helpful to know how to support your friend.
The conditions that set off situational depression are called stressors. Stressors, explains VeryWell Mind, "might be a single event like a natural disaster or divorce or an ongoing problem such as a chronic illness or marital strife. They can even be something that might be perceived as being a positive event like marriage, a new baby, or starting a different job. However, if the stress associated with an event exceeds a person's ability to cope, it can lead to a temporary state of depression."
Here's how to recognize when your friend needs more support after a breakup.
They're Doing Impulsive Or Reckless Things
Often, having adjustment disorder after a really big event means that someone may start acting out of character. The U.S. Library of Medicine explains that "acting defiant or showing impulsive behavior" is one of the signals that your friend might not be coping very well with the breakup and needs some help.
Research indicates this kind of behavior is pretty common in teenagers who've just encountered a big stressor, but it can also happen in adults, who start to behave recklessly: going out all night, doing a lot of impulse shopping, making snap decisions without a lot of forethought, and generally not behaving in a rational manner. Situational depression can impair decision-making faculties, which is why impulsive behaviors can take over.
They Can't Step Away From Responsibilities
Experts at Cedar Crest Hospital explain that even if your friend appears to be outwardly holding it together, taking a step away from responsibilities might be a sign of situational depression. They highlight "ignoring bills and other financial obligations, difficulties making decisions and trouble concentrating" as particular symptoms that should be noted. Is your friend getting behind in credit card payments, not remembering appointments, and avoiding dealing with things they'd typically fix in a second? They may need an assist with these responsibilities; ask them if they want a gym buddy, or if you can help them set up autopay on their bills.
A little bit of withdrawal after a breakup happens, but if your friend is withdrawing from their social life entirely, or saying that they feel seriously overwhelmed and anxious about hanging out with other people, they're likely in need of some help to cope. Watch out for them if they start to refuse to hang out, even one-on-one, make excuses about family events and things they'd normally love, or leave everybody on Read for days at a time. Make an extra effort to reach out and engage them in social activities.
They're Not Taking Care Of Themselves In Basic Ways
Longer-term depression, also known as major depressive disorder, and situational depression have different timelines: MDD occurs over a lifetime, while situational depression is triggered by a specific stressor and typically resolves after six months or so. However, they share a few symptoms, including a lack of basic interest in taking care of yourself. If your friend can't seem to be motivated to prepare food, has stopped showering or cleaning their room, and appears to be finding normal daily activities challenging, you can let them know your concern and suggest ways to help them tackle their to-do list in a manageable way.
They're Having Trouble Sleeping
If your friend is experiencing trouble sleeping, whether it's insomnia, sleeping very late, or having a very fractured sleep cycle, it's a signal that they may be experiencing emotional distress, according to NAMI. They may not be motivated to get out of bed, or stop making healthy sleeping decisions; either way, a complete break in sleep habits indicates they may have adjustment disorder.
Their Relationship With Food Has Changed
Lack of appetite, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a classic symptom of situational depression, and can last for a prolonged period. Your friend may also experience nausea or gastrointestinal distress, and feel a lack of motivation when it comes to getting or preparing food. It will take more than ordering them take-out to resolve the underlying emotional issues behind their low appetite, but being there to share a meal or snack with them can help.
They've Lost Their Sense Of Self-Esteem
After the end of a relationship, many people feel a bit crushed. However, if your friend is showing signs of low self-esteem over an extended period — talking about themselves very negatively or voicing self-criticism, for instance — it may be a symptom of situational depression. No longer considering themselves "worthy" of self-care like exercising or dressing nicely, refusing to go out for fear of being judged, and expressing thoughts about how unworthy and unlovable they feel are all signals of critically low self-esteem. You can affirm their feelings of sadness while gently drawing attention to the things that are wonderful about them, to surround them with messages of love.
Even if your friend says they're just having a hard time after a breakup, if they're experiencing signs of situational depression, it's important for them to know it's OK to get help.
"It is important to get help, because situational depression can lead to a more severe type of depression or substance abuse if untreated. For many people with situational depression, the coping skills they learn in treatment can become valuable tools to help them face the future," explains Healthline.
If your friend has continued to show symptoms of adjustment issues for weeks or months after the breakup, you can help guide them to talk to a therapist, psychologist, or even helpline. There's no "bad reason" to get help.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.