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Could a Drug Help You Heal From Heartbreak?

Pain from a breakup feels inevitable. Would you take a pill to make it go away?

by Niki Davis-Fainbloom
July 20, 2021 | Love
woman taking pill. REWIRE PBS love heartbreak
Credit: kieferpix // Adobe

I spent the whole flight telling myself I had come to Toronto to visit my friends and family, not him. Reminding myself that his actions and words have clearly demonstrated that he no longer wants to be with me in any real way.

That he behaved awfully in the past year; cheating on me with my friend, not prioritizing what remained of our relationship, and even starting something new since our relationship had officially ended. 

Yet somehow, once the plane landed, love's evil twin took over my body, and I watched myself unblock his number and send him a flirty text letting him know that I was in town.

And after something to the likes of, "Sure, I'll fuck you," I found myself in a cab heading to his place. I knew our relationship was over and seeing him would only cause me harm in the long run, but my desperation and inability to envision a life without him triumphed over my logic.  

Breakups have been described by experts as one of the most painful experiences many of us go through in our entire lives, and millions of us lay folks can enthusiastically affirm. 

Nazanin Moali, Ph.D., sex expert and breakup survivor, explained that breakups activate similar brain regions to that of physical pain, describing her first breakup as feeling like "being run over by a monster truck every hour for the first week."

Thankfully, time, tequila and cookie dough help most of us move on towards some semblance of normality post-breakup. However, particularly awful breakups may require some help with the healing process.

For that, there's a chemical way to treat a broken heart.

Drugs and heartbreak 

This isn't a sci-fi movie, and there is no magic pill to heal heartbreak. However, Alain Brunet, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and PTSD expert, has developed a method to treat the painful memories that beset the heartbroken.

Brunet's therapy — reconsolidation therapy — works by helping folks re-experience the painful memories associated with love lost, while working to remove the emotional components of the memory.  

Brunet gives each patient a dose of a beta blocker (propranolol) before heartbreak therapy. During a session, patients explore their romantic trauma, thus activating the painful memories. However, the beta blocker suppresses the pain that is associated with the memory.

man taking pill. REWIRE pbs love heartbreak
Particularly awful breakups may require some help with the healing process. For that, there's a chemical solution.  |  Credit: nadia_snopek // Adobe

This helps the memory to become re-coded without the emotion, with "cured" patients describing the experience of reading through their previously heart-wrenching story like reading a storybook (OK, that does sound pretty sci-fi).

As our understanding of attachment and neurobiology continues to increase, our ability to chemically treat breakups will become more precise. Who knows, perhaps one day we will have a single pill that can cure heartbreak. 

But even if such a pill existed, should we take it?

Negative feelings and emotions are our body's way of sending us a message. Whether we can learn from these messages depends on a myriad of factors.

We have all heard the story of the person who continues to live out the same unhealthy relationship dynamics with several partners, despite clear negative effects.

However, many of us learn some of our strongest lessons through feeling and reflecting on pain and the unhealthy patterns that preceded it.

If we snap our fingers and rid ourselves of the pain, learning and growth may not take place.

Brian Earp is associate director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics at Yale University. He said there may be a point when the bodily signals brought on by a breakup stop being adaptive, and become so intense that they're interfering with our ability to move on with our lives — leaving us stuck.

"If (using pharmaceutical drugs) such as used in Brunet's therapy, isn't a crutch, but is really an instrument to positive growth, so that all-things-considered it is beneficial for you to take it," Earp said.

"Then it is hard to see why you shouldn't be allowed to do so."

Moali agrees with the sentiment.

"Our emotions are like a beach ball in a pool," she said. "The harder you press them down, the harder they will push up."

We cannot avoid the pain of a breakup, and, "experiencing our emotions and tolerating them can be a valuable tool that will help us to access our emotional depths and become healthier individuals." 

Moali explains, "(Brunet's treatment) might help people tolerate processing these memories without feeling extremely deregulated."  

However, she believes this would only make sense in the most extreme situations, and it will do most of us well to learn to process our emotions without using medication in therapy.

How could we normalize heartbreak treatment? 

Creating a diagnosis of this condition — extreme heartbreak — could be the first step toward utilizing breakup treatments on a larger scale.

This could help professionals identify those suffering beyond a reasonable degree, and get them into a program that could include treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy or reconsolidation therapy. 

"Any drugs should only be administered in the context of a well-designed program, with the guidance of a trained therapist, who can help the individual reflect on the bigger-picture issues that are affecting their romantic lives," Earp said.

"Ideally, it would never be a matter of just swallowing some pills out of context and hoping for the best."

Earp, though, isn't in a hurry to chemically treat a breakup.

"I have a pretty cautious nature, and I think I would be reluctant to use a drug — for any kind of problem — if there non-chemical avenues that I felt I could still productively explore."  

I agreed. Although I experienced two months of absolute hell after my latest breakup, the pain helped me alter my dating strategy for the better.

Somehow, when I came out of the cookie dough-induced haze, I felt stronger and confident that in my newer relationships I would make all new mistakes, instead of falling into the same unhealthy dynamics. 

However, we need options for those too deep into the breakup trenches to move on by themselves. Hopefully, with more research by folks like Earp and Brunet, we can work toward normalizing treatment for those who need it, and developing a larger-scale program for the stuck and broken-hearted. 

Niki Davis-Fainbloom
Niki Davis-Fainbloom, MA, is a New York-based sexuality writer, educator and coach who uses research, humor and practical advice to help people improve their romantic and sexual relationships.
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