The Do’s and Don’ts of Wallowing (After a Breakup or Anything Else)

It’s natural to want to hole up with a box of tissues and a DVD of "The Notebook" when you’re sad. But take these precautions to prevent an emotional downward spiral.

| June 13th, 2013
The Do’s and Don’ts of Wallowing (After a Breakup or Anything Else)

Your long-term boyfriend just announced that he’s met someone else. In the days following the breakup, you try to expedite the process of moving on by going out with friends, flirting with strangers and keeping the ever-present thoughts of your ex to yourself. But really, all you feel like doing is getting your best friend on the phone to rehash the dirty details of the breakup yet again. Or, if she’s not available to talk, curling up on the couch with a bottle of wine and putting Adele’s “Someone Like You” on repeat.

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While we tend to think that distracting ourselves from our feelings is the best remedy for mending a broken heart, it’s not always possible to turn off our brain’s onslaught of reflective programming. Nor, according to some research, is it necessarily the only way to feel better. Indeed, surrendering to the temptation to wallow in our feelings may be the first step on the road to recovery.

Losing the person we love (to death, or another woman), personal traumas and national tragedies can change our lives by shaking our beliefs in how the world works and altering our vision of others and of ourselves. After an upsetting experience, 90 percent of people report spending significant time ruminating about it, says Bernard Rimé, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Louvain in Belgium. We search for meaning, answers, explanations.

“One of [our brain’s] most important skills is a hyper-sensitivity to incomprehension, inconsistency, incoherence or contradiction,” Rimé says. “A major negative event represents a real set of inconsistencies.”

Chan Jean Lee, an assistant professor of marketing at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, who has studied how people act under emotional distress, believes that wallowing is a coping method that helps people get over their sadness gradually.

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“After a negative episode, our first reaction is a feeling of loneliness followed by a need to be in touch with our loved ones,” says Rimé. “Humans are built this way.” The more intense the sadness, the more you want to unload to your friends and the longer it takes you to talk it all out. 

But even the most patient of friends can only spend so much time lending a supportive shoulder. Luckily, emotional proxies for understanding friends are available. In a 2013 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Lee investigated how negative feelings impact our preference for what researchers call mood-congruent aesthetic stimuli. In other words, when we’re sad, do we prefer sad books, movies and songs?

Lee and her colleagues addressed this question by asking 233 participants to read through 12 negative scenarios, like breaking up with a significant other, finding an insect in their food or failing an exam. Half the participants then chose whether they would like to talk to either a funny friend who could distract them from the negative scenario, or an empathetic friend who could share their feelings. The other half chose whether they’d like to listen to a cheerful or sad song following the event.

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