Rachel Campbell discusses the phenomena around the new “pill to cure heartbreak.”
Dr Alan Brunet, a Canadian clinical psychologist who has spent over 15 years studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has developed a new form of therapy known as “reconsolidation therapy”. The approach helps to remove emotional pain from traumatic memories and uses the beta blocker propranolol to aid this process. Propranolol is not a new drug, it has been prescribed for around 50 years to treat high blood pressure, irregular heart rates, anxiety, migraines, and other common health concerns. In Brunet’s reconsolidation therapy, the patient takes a dose of propranolol an hour before a therapy session where they then write an account of their trauma and read it aloud. The beta blocker allows for the highly emotional part of that memory to be targeted; it’s “reconsolidation” is impeded, and therefore the pain is suppressed.
Brunet says, “We’re using this enhanced understanding on how memories are formed and how they are unlocked and updated and saved again.” In this form of therapy, the new, less emotional version of the memory recalled after taking propranolol, is “saved” and patients will no longer feel the pain attached to these recollections in the future. The patients claimed their painful memories now “could have been written by someone else - like reading a novel.” Brunet launched a programme in France where 400 people underwent this therapy following the deadly terror attacks in Paris and Nice, and the process has shown success for victims of PTSD. However, Brunet and his colleague Michelle Lonergan then began to study the effects of this therapy on those suffering from heartbreak, including cases of infidelity and abandonment. Brunet is also hopeful to extend reconsolidation therapy to other areas, encompassing “Any type of distress which emanates from an emotional event.” The question is: is it right to extend this type of invasive therapy to any feelings of distress?
When I first heard of an “anti-heartbreak pill” which altered your memories, it all sounded very Black Mirror to me. I thought it was a clear-cut issue: if we begin to erase any negative feelings of heartbreak or distress, we become robots. We become less empathetic, and potentially lose out on positive effects which difficult situations can yield, such as resilience and creative expression. However, in reading the details it doesn’t seem so straightforward. This is not a new drug designed to automatically rid us of any hard feelings; it’s a drug I have used for several years to combat anxiety. I myself start counselling again this week, and having dealt with trauma and mental health issues for some time, I can’t say that respite from those traumatic memories and their impact on my present life doesn’t sound appealing. In treating many mental health issues, a combination of therapy and medication is usually the treatment prescribed, and Brunet’s reconsolidation therapy seems to be just another form of this (though a new form which has the potential to help lots of people who really struggle with the impact of traumatic memories). In this sense, surely it is just another positive step forward and provides another option for people struggling to cope with trauma.
There does, however, seem to be danger lying in branding it the “pill to treat heartbreak”, as there would be if you said the same of antidepressants. There is a reason other mental health treatments are not over the counter. They are not a quick fix to avoid dealing with temporary pain which can be a natural part of life. Of course, some people who have been badly betrayed and heartbroken may suffer from mental health issues as a result, but calling it the “heartbreak pill” makes it seem as though it is an easy way out of dealing with any heartbreak. The term “heartbreak” can include a multitude of different difficult experiences, which often shape us into who we are, and it doesn’t seem like taking the pain out of all those experiences would help us in the long run. Moreover, we feel pain associated with memories to remind us not to return to those situations that hurt us, and taking the pain away from heartbreak might mean we stop learning from our mistakes and ultimately end up more unhappy. I, for one, don’t like the idea of thinking it fine to go back to the first person who broke my heart.
Ultimately, any advancement in treating mental health illnesses is welcome in my eyes, but it shouldn’t be branded a quick fix for heartbreak. Having suffered from heartbreak, I can say it’s made me a better person and has made me realise what I want, and what I want to avoid. We can’t numb ourselves to every negative feeling, but we can seek help when we are really struggling, and therapies such as this one can be useful when we need them most - not when we get dumped over text and find that a few chats with our friends and a few nights out can remedy it just fine.