Trauma is a psychological injury. It describes emotionally painful and distressing experiences. The most important component is that these experiences are overwhelming, which implies that it exceeds a person’s ability to cope.
Repeated acts of psychological injury are likely to result in trauma. Those who experienced many adverse and traumatic events in childhood and adolescence are more vulnerable to mental and physical illness and of course Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In order for a person to receive the diagnosis of PTSD, there need to be a STRESSOR (exposure). There need to be INTRUSIVE SYMPTOMS (e.g. memories and dreams, and flashbacks these are dissociative reactions) that begin after the traumatic event that has been witnessed or directly experienced. There need to be AVOIDANCE. This means that anything that reminds the person of the traumatic event is attempted to be avoided. There will be NEGATIVE ALTERATIONS IN COGNITION AND MOOD. These are negative beliefs, “distorted” cognitions and other symptoms as seen in severe depression. There will be CHANGES IN AROUSAL AND REACTIVITY. E.g. hyper vigilance, startle response, sleep disturbances and self-destructive behaviours.
PTSD is not diagnosed when the duration is shorter than one month. Often the diagnosis is not made early on as many have a delayed onset. People experiencing symptoms up to three months often receive a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder. When the symptoms remain, PTSD is considered. Prognosis varies from 3 months to 12 months and longer. New traumatic events while recovering will prolong the healing process.
As mentioned before, some people are more vulnerable due to environmental factors, but also genetic and temperamental (personality) factors play a role.
PTSD is more prevalent than previously thought. In general people think that those involved in active combat and first responders are mostly affected. Looking closely at the characteristics and the length of time people experience these symptoms, we may conclude that PTSD is more prevalent than any stats (so far) indicate.
More recently, those working with people who experienced infidelity of their partner, have observed that these people experience most, if not all, of the aforementioned characteristics, and for a very long time. The term Post Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD) is used. Stress Cardiomyopathy is one of the early symptoms. It is experienced as pain around the heart and an irregular heartbeat. Although, these symptoms of a “broken heart” are supposedly disappearing after a few weeks, an irregular heartbeat after being exposed to a trigger is often mentioned by people who experienced betrayal.
One factor often not mentioned is that this trauma is caused by the person who is suppose to respect and protect you. The person you trust(ed). Therefore, betrayal from family members (parents) and partners is so much harder to heal from. Living with the partner who betrayed you and living in the area that reminds you daily of the betrayal makes it even harder. I am not saying that separation or moving is the answer, the pain travels with you anyway, but the triggers are more obvious when they are nearby.
What can we do with all this?
Readers could say “nice lecture”, now what? Considering I am preaching to the choir, there may not be a point in even posting this. This is to those working in the field who do not recognize the severity of the pain experienced and who therefore underestimate what their clients go through. They may not pace their recourses well and/or perceive the infidelity purely as a couple problem, or come with unhelpful statements (stats) that show how “normal” cheating is. An interesting stats I found is an annual prevalence of 2.3% in a study conducted by Whisman and colleagues (Journal of Fam. Psychol. 21(2): 320-324. Published in 2007 (old, of course!).
Hurdles to healing
These are triggers, reminders of the dirty relationship(s). What helps is to write all these down. To have these validated and acknowledged by the person who betrayed you. To tell yourself that these are reminders (memories) and although they elicit thoughts about the pain, that pain (the dirty relationship) is not happening now. To allow yourself time to deal with these triggers but to not let them intimidate you. You want your life back and no stupid trigger is going to prevent you from eating in that restaurant, or visiting that hotel, or going to that airport! Of course, this works when you have a partner who knows what you experience and who very likely has the same experiences. This partner should be 100% devoted to healing together and needs to do the majority of the work. As many (male) partners who betrayed are not very good in guessing, let them ask you what you need. You need to be their priority :).