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There is no guidebook on how to heal a broken heart — and that’s exactly the problem. Experiencing romantic betrayal can be a catastrophic event. So much so, that according to a new study spearheaded by Dr. Alain Brunet, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, traumatic breakups can trigger adjustment disorders that mimic symptoms of PTSD.
Thankfully, a group of Canadian scientists are studying a treatment for trauma stemming from romantic betrayal and the results have been life changing for many.
“Adjustment disorders are often referred to as the ‘common cold’ of psychiatry,” Dr. Michelle Lonergan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, who helped lead the study under Brunet, tells Yahoo Canada. That’s because they’re widespread. And, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, they clear up on their own after about six months.
But, can you really put a timestamp on how long it takes someone to recover from infidelity or sudden abandonment in a long term relationship?
“It’s complete hog-wash,” Lonergan says. Just like the common flu, it’s very likely that some people won’t need to get treatments and it clears up on its own, she notes. But it’s also possible to develop severe complications that need medical intervention in order to heal.
How romantic betrayal affects your body
While an adjustment disorder that stems from romantic betrayal isn’t exactly the same as PTSD, the symptoms manifest in similar ways. John Hopkins University characterizes adjustment disorders as unhealthy or excessive reactions to stressful events that are considered common: think financial difficulties, illness, or divorce. PTSD, on the other hand, is characterized by a traumatic, life-threatening event.
“There has to be a component of fearing for your physical safety to be officially diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder,” Lonergan explains. While finding out your partner had an affair, or suddenly being dumped isn’t exactly life-threatening, our bodies can process the feelings that follow in similarly intrusive ways. “You constantly think about the event, you have a physical reaction to thinking about it, and you try to avoid anything that reminds you of it."
Lonergan’s study found that the "common" experience of romantic betrayal can be just as traumatizing for some as a life-threatening event.
In order to qualify for the study, participants had to have experienced romantic betrayal in a monogamous, long-term relationship. They were screened using a survey for PTSD patients that measures how much difficulty a patient is having participating in everyday life. To be officially diagnosed with PTSD patients have to score above 33 and a score of 37 is enough to suppress your immune system.
“We thought that a score of 24 was going to be sufficient to capture the severity of romantic betrayal, but what we found was scores were just as severe as patients with PTSD, averaging in the low 50s.”
Can you cure heartbreak?
By the end of the study the average score dropped to just 19. The successful results were achieved through the use of reconsolidation therapy in combination with the medication propranolol — a beta blocker commonly used to lower blood pressure.
Reconsolidation therapy operates under the idea that memory is malleable and we can update it if we need to. Participants of the study were asked to write down detailed accounts of their romantic betrayals and then read them aloud over the course of five weekly sessions. Propranolol was given an hour before each session to block the surge of adrenaline that keeps the memory traumatic, by lowering their physical reaction to reliving it.
The study found that exposing participants to the traumatic memory over and over again under the aid of propranolol allowed them to create a new memory that says “you’re not in danger if you think about this." Reducing how fearful that memory was for them, successfully reduced their symptoms of PTSD.
“When the trauma memory consolidates back into your long term memory storage it does so with less emotional punch,” says Lonergan. That memory that was creating unwanted intrusive thoughts becomes just another bad memory and doesn’t affect you in the present anymore. “That’s what we found with this treatment and that’s what we wanted to do with romantic betrayal — to ease the emotional pain of these traumatic memories so that people can function again.”