After a betrayal, have you ever wished you had concrete evidence of the effect the other person’s actions had on you? Call it petty, but sometimes you just want something tangible you could point to and say, “This proves how much you impacted me.” Well, Khloe Kardashian’s got the receipts — in the form of a brain scan. In a recent episode of “The Kardashians” on Hulu, Khloe got her head scanned, and a doctor told her that her brain showed signs of trauma, TMZ reports. Khloe chalked it up to Tristan Thompson cheating on her.
While it might seem far-fetched, it is possible to see trauma in the brain. “An MRI can show regions of the brain being atrophied (shrunken) or enlarged, which would indicate unresolved trauma,” says Justina M. Floyd, a trauma therapist at Carolinas Center for Evaluation and Treatment. This is especially true if you face constant reminders of the trauma, as is the case with Khloe, who deals with media and fans. “However, the good news is that because our brains can be neuroplastic and change due to events, trauma can also be healed. It takes a lot more work to undo the damage, but it is very much possible.”
“The hardest part about it all is training yourself to unlove someone,” Khloe said in the episode, according to Parade. She added, “This was my life for six years. And we weren’t just a couple — we genuinely were best friends. He was my workout buddy. We did all these things together. And so learning how to undo all those things, that takes time. Just because someone does you dirty doesn’t mean you fall out of love with them instantly.”
Anyone who’s experienced this specific kind of heartbreak can relate to Khloe — infidelity is a complicated experience to grieve. POPSUGAR spoke with trauma experts who explained how being betrayed can physically alter your brain and impact your long-term well-being and what healing looks like, physically and emotionally.
How Does Emotional Trauma Physically Impact the Brain?
Within the body, our emotions can get pretty physical. “Physiologically, trauma impacts our brains due to our basic, primal-level hardwiring,” says Floyd. She says three significant areas in our brains are involved:
- The amygdala, which is responsible for anxiety and the fight, flight, or freeze responses.
- The hippocampal region, which is primarily responsible for consolidating short-term and long-term memories.
- The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex thought and reasoning.
When we’re experiencing an intensely emotional event, “our amygdalas swell with increased blood flow, while the flow to other regions like the prefrontal cortex is decreased, which is why survivors of trauma often cannot discuss traumatic events or have spotty memories (or no memories) of the events,” Floyd says. She notes that stress hormones are known to negatively impact the neural connections between these parts of our brains as well.
These changes are real — and can be seen on brain scans. “Just as exercise builds muscles, we’re learning that continued exposure to thought processes changes the shape of the brain,” says Amy Baxter, MD, a pain researcher and clinical associate professor at Augusta University. “Political belief thought patterns can now be seen on MRI,” she says. Emotional pain and physical pain can both imprint on the brain, she notes: “Chronic knee pain changes the volume of the thalamus. On a positive note, the brain changes back to non-pain shapes six months after a successful knee replacement, so trauma may not have to leave a lifelong imprint.”
Is Being Cheated On a Form of Trauma?
“Absolutely, cheating is considered a traumatic event,” says Charlotte Kirsten, BACP-qualified trauma psychotherapist, EMDR trauma practitioner, and founder of Typically Topical. In many cases, Kirsten has seen clients who urge to pull away from social interaction as a self-defense mechanism. “Their mind convinces them that any new relationship, even friendship, has the potential to put them back in that dark place, and so no connection is ‘safe.’ In worst-case scenarios, conditions such as complex PTSD may form, as childhood fears of rejection are re-triggered in adulthood.”
Some therapists have started using the term post-infidelity stress disorder (PISD) when categorizing infidelity’s impact on mental health, because it can closely resemble post traumatic stress disorder, says Saba Harouni Lurie, founder of Take Root Therapy. It’s also linked to betrayal trauma, which Lurie says is a type of attachment trauma that people experience when something happens that betrays their understanding of their bond with an attachment figure. “Betrayal trauma from a romantic relationship can impact a person’s emotional and mental health and create symptoms like depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, poor emotional regulation, and intrusive thoughts.”
Debi Silber, holistic psychologist and founder of The Post Betrayal Transformation Institute recently conducted a PhD study that focused on how we experience betrayal. Of the 80,000-plus people who took the Post Betrayal Syndrome quiz, almost everyone who’d been betrayed experienced a very similar collection of symptoms, which included fatigue, digestive issues, inability to focus, feelings of stress and anxiety, and a reluctance to form deep relationships because of a fear of being hurt. The phenomenon dubbed Post Betrayal Syndrome. “These stats aren’t necessarily from a recent betrayal,” Silber says. “They can be from the parent who did something traumatic when we were children or the girlfriend/boyfriend in high school who broke our heart. The good news is, we can heal from all of it.”
Can You Heal From Cheated-Related Trauma?
The short answer is: yes, as Silber says, it’s possible to heal (and to return your brain to its prebetrayed state). But it may take work. The adage that “time heals all wounds” isn’t true for all wounds, or all people, says Silber. For some, she says, “Healing must be deliberate and intentional.”
Kirsten says that healing from trauma involves self-compassion, patience, and acceptance. “Journeying through the stages of grief helps [people] come to terms with their loss because that’s what it is: a loss,” she says. Some people may be able to do this work on their own, while others may benefit from therapy. Either way, when people let themselves recover, they’re able to truly move forward — emotionally and physically. “Studies are emerging that demonstrate neuroplasticity — the ability of our brain to bounce back and change after damage, including that induced by traumatic events,” Kirsten points out. So while heartbreak is undoubtedly painful, rest assured that it’s possible to turn that fight-or-flight danger response off, allowing ourselves to focus on building new, healthier relationships in the future.
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