We’ve all been there. Wrapped up in a pillow fort with a broken heart, knee-deep in chocolate ice-cream, tissues at arms-reach, gagging and heaving at the sight of innocent couples holding hands in public. And lots of crying.
Most of us would do anything to rid ourselves of the pain of a broken heart.
If you are familiar with the premise of the 2004 movie The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, we witness Joel and Clementine impulsively erase two-years worth of their own memories of each other and their relationship.
Even more so, if you watched it in the throes of a break-up, you may have wished that a similar memory-erasing technology existed in reality, and that it was possible to scrub every last trace of your ex from your brain. But now, new research has found that this kind of procedure might not be restricted to the realm of science fiction for much longer.
So what’s the idea? It’s been found that a novel and ground-breaking technique that uses propranolol, a beta blocker, can alter memories of severe heartbreak to lessen the emotional pain associated with them, according to new research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
Adjustment disorder (AD) is a condition that can arise in response following a significant life event or change – such as a messy or distressing breakup.
Whilst it is normal to feel some degree of anxiety or grief following these situations, people with AD experience more intense and long-lasting symptoms that infer with their day-to-day lives, and their ability to cope. These may include, but are not limited to, difficulty sleeping, depressed mood, social withdrawal and difficulty concentrating. In more severe cases, AD can lead to self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Alain Brunet, director of research in psycho-traumatology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is one of the pioneers of Reconsolidation Therapy (RT), or as he has dubbed it, The Brunet Method™. “It does, a little bit, sound like science fiction, but it no longer is, Brunet told CBC.
This new approach follows work to help patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and so the “good clinical results we had obtained in treating PTSD with RT, [we] applied it to a broader set of trauma-like conditions, hence our interest for adjustment disorder,” he explained.
“I originally got interested in heartbreak because it’s the number one reason why people consult a psychotherapist. It’s also the stuff that Greek tragedies are made of, and it’s something really at the core of the human experience,” Brunet said.
“Romantic Betrayal (a form of AD) seemed like an interesting topic to study because, it is very distressing. There is also very little professional help available for romantically betrayed individuals who do not wish to return to their partner.”
Propranolol is a beta blocker that is most often prescribed to those who have high blood pressure, migraines and specific anxiety disorders. But this drug has also been shown to weaken the emotional tone of memories by blocking the adrenergic (adrenaline) receptors inside the brain – essentially, it means that our ‘fight-or-flight’ response is nulled when under the influence of this drug.
In this study, Brunet and his colleagues recruited adults who met the appropriate clinical criteria for AD; the participants had all experienced a romantic betrayal event, such as cheating or financial infidelity, that occurred during their monogamous long-term relationships.
The subjects were instructed to write down the traumatic memories in as much detail as they can before taking propranolol. Then, after they have finished writing their recollection, they would read their narrative aloud, noting down any reactions that they had as they went along, such as sweating, trembling, crying and tension under the influence of propranolol. Fifty-five subjects attended at least one treatment session, while 48 completed all five sessions.
To evaluate clinically significant symptoms, the subjects completed a widely used questionnaire known as the Impact of Event Scale-Revised (IES-R) before, throughout, and after the treatment.
Researchers observed a substantial drop in IES-R scores immediately following the first treatment. They continue to witness a steady decline in all IES-R scores over the course of the treatment phase. Thirty-five participants who completed a follow-up survey provided evidence that the improvements in their symptoms endured up to four months after treatment.
“Our study suggests that Reconsolidation Therapy works with adjustment disorder, in that it is clearly superior to a wait-list group,” Brunet tells PsyPost.
Brunet also exclaims that he was surprised by how high the IES-R scores were prior to treatment. “Looking at the severity of symptoms, we were surprised at how painful adjustment disorder can be. Adjustment disorder is not a ‘wimpy’ disorder. This is clearly a misconception.”
So, what does this mean for the future? On one hand, the positive results from this research show great promise in treating adjustment disorder. However, a burning question arises; Where do we draw the line?
If reconsolidation therapy is to be an adopted mainstream treatment in treating traumatic memories, it’s great news to those suffering. But there is the risk of propranolol being overprescribed by big pharmaceutical companies, and it could be encouraged further to be used to treat memories that are not necessarily ‘traumatic’ – but in reality, are just a little bit shit.
Judy Illes, director of Neuroethics Canada, told CBC that she “absolutely” supports the kind of work that Brunet and his team are doing in a clinical setting, to alleviate the suffering from these mental health issues that have a serious impact on peoples lives. However, she warns that there is a slippery slope to be aware of with this form of treatment, especially outside of a clinical setting.
“If we dampen our memories of our bad experiences, we may actually dampen our potential for learning from them and [for] good behaviour going forward,” Illes said.
From an ethical standpoint, Illes believes that this kind of treatment could have profound consequences. “Those [traumatic] memories are what allow us to really check what we do from a moral point of view and ensure that those final decisions, to the extent possible, are the right ones.”
And isn’t that exactly what Eternal Sunshine was trying to say? Without the ability to learn from their mistakes, aren’t Joel and Clementine doomed to repeat the past? Is it not true that we need lows to appreciate highs?
I believe that if my own memories of my exes weren’t so vivid, so painful, so cringe, I would still be stuck in the same cycle of dating different variations of the same emotionally immature, commitment-averse men.
But, then again, if you were to ask me 24 hours after I’ve been dumped, I would probably sell my soul for a crumb of propranolol if it would make the heartache go away.
The study, “Treatment of adjustment disorder stemming from romantic betrayal using memory reactivation under propranolol: A open-label interrupted time series trial“, was produced by Michelle Lonergan, Daniel Saumier, Sereena Pigeon, Pierre E. Etienne, and Alain Brunet.
Featured image by Kate Her Haar via Flickr CC.
Edited by Sophie Patrick and Hamida Ali.