Effects of betrayal on the brain: Altering mind and body

What is betrayal theory?

Betrayal trauma theory, proposed by psychologist Jennifer Freyd, explores how trauma can be particularly impactful when it's perpetrated by people or institutions upon whom an individual depends or trusts deeply. The theory emphasizes that the event itself doesn't solely determine the severity of trauma. It is also impacted by the degree of betrayal experienced.

However, betrayal trauma alters the mind and body. It is physical, emotional, and mental.

Critical points of betrayal trauma theory include:

  1. Betrayal by Trusted Individuals: It focuses on situations where someone close—a family member, caregiver, partner, or authority figure—violates trust or causes harm, leading to trauma.
  2. Impact on Memory: The theory suggests that the brain might sometimes block or distort memories of traumatic events, especially when the perpetrator is someone trusted, to protect the individual from the emotional pain and cognitive dissonance of acknowledging the betrayal.
  3. Emotional Impact and Coping Mechanisms: The emotional toll of betrayal trauma can be profound, leading to feelings of confusion, self-blame, and difficulty in trusting others. Individuals might employ coping mechanisms such as dissociation or compartmentalization to manage conflicting emotions.
  4. Long-Term Effects on Relationships and Well-being: Betrayal trauma can have lasting effects on a person's ability to form and maintain relationships, trust others, and feel secure. It may contribute to issues like difficulties in forming intimate relationships, anxiety, and challenges in regulating emotions.

Betrayal trauma theory aims to shed light on the complex dynamics of trauma caused by breaches of trust, highlighting how the relational aspect of trauma can profoundly impact an individual's emotional and psychological well-being.

Understanding betrayal trauma

The impact of betrayal trauma can be profound. Common reactions include feelings of:

  •  shock, 
  • distrust, 
  • emotional pain, and 
  • even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some cases.

Individual responses to betrayal trauma vary, and its effects can be long-lasting, impacting one's ability to trust others, form new relationships, or feel secure in existing ones. Therapy and support can help individuals navigate the complex emotions and challenges that arise from experiencing betrayal trauma. 

Ways betrayal trauma alters the mind and body

Psychological responses

Mental health is dramatically impacted. People who have experienced childhood trauma or sexual abuse can experience the symptoms of betrayal trauma even more acutely.

  • Shock and Disbelief: Feeling stunned or having difficulty accepting what happened, especially if it's unexpected.
  • Emotional Pain: Intense hurt, sadness, anger, or confusion because of the betrayal.
  • Trust Issues: Finding it difficult to trust others, even people who haven't caused harm, because of fear of being hurt again.
  • Anxiety and Stress: Feeling on edge, worried, or anxious about relationships, situations, or memories related to the betrayal.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Doubting oneself, feeling unworthy, or blaming oneself for the betrayal is common.
  • Mood Swings: Experiencing sudden changes in emotions, going from feeling fine to feeling upset or angry without warning.
  • Difficulty Sleeping or Nightmares: Having trouble sleeping or experiencing disturbing dreams about the betrayal.
  • Avoidance Behavior: Trying to avoid reminders or situations that bring back memories of the betrayal.
  • Flashbacks or Intrusive Thoughts: Recurring thoughts, memories, or images of the betrayal that pop up unexpectedly and are distressing.
  • Isolation and Withdrawal: Pulling away from friends, family, or social activities.
  • Physical symptoms

    You have just discovered your partner's affair. Adrenaline and related stress hormones flood your sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety and agitation sweep you in waves. Sleep is difficult, and any sense of calm seems impossible. The first challenge of affair recovery for the brave spouse is to regulate the nervous system and restore proper cognitive functioning.

    The chemical imbalance in your nervous system may, for a time, completely overwhelm your capacity for routine collaborative activities.

    Physiological changes

    An affair has the impact of a neurological firestorm. At some point, the stress on your nervous system may become so intense that different physiological changes kick in. Endogenous opioids will deaden your perception and circumscribe your capacity to feel stress on your nervous system. Your sense of agency will narrow into a numbed-out detachment.

    Betrayal trauma, because it is primarily emotional and psychological, can manifest in physical symptoms because of the significant stress and emotional strain it causes. Some of the most common physical symptoms associated with betrayal trauma include:

    1. Headaches: Stress and emotional distress can lead to tension headaches or migraines.
    2. Gastrointestinal Distress: Stress and anxiety can affect the digestive system, causing symptoms like stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
    3. Fatigue: Emotional turmoil can lead to exhaustion and constant tiredness.
    4. Sleep Problems: Difficulty falling, staying, or experiencing restful sleep because of intrusive thoughts or anxiety.
    5. Muscle Tension and Pain: Stress can cause muscle tightness, leading to aches, pains, or even exacerbating conditions like fibromyalgia.
    6. Changes in Appetite: Some may experience changes in appetite, leading to overeating or loss of appetite.
    7. Weakened Immune System: Long-term stress can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.
    8. Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: Intense emotions and stress can lead to a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, especially during periods of distress or anxiety.
    9. Skin Problems: Stress can exacerbate skin conditions like eczema, acne, or psoriasis.
    10. Dizziness or Fainting Spells: Severe stress or anxiety might lead to feelings of dizziness or even fainting in some cases.

    It's important to note that these physical symptoms can vary greatly among individuals. Addressing the emotional aspects of betrayal trauma through therapy, support networks, and self-care can often alleviate these physical manifestations of stress over time. Seeking professional help can provide strategies to manage both the emotional and physical effects of betrayal trauma.

    Sex addiction-induced trauma

    Sexual addiction-induced trauma refers to the psychological distress or trauma experienced by individuals. This can be because of their sexual addiction or from a partner's sex addiction. It's a complex and multifaceted issue. The compulsive or harmful sexual behaviors of an individual then lead to trauma for themselves or those in their intimate circle. 

    Sex addiction induces personal trauma like shame, guilt, and loss of control, leading individuals to feel powerless over their actions and distressed. Partners can experience relational trauma due to betrayal, secrecy, and emotional disconnection, causing deep wounds and feelings of deception and hurt, leading to a loss of trust. Additionally, those not directly involved may suffer secondary trauma from the addiction's impact on relationships, family, or social circles, resulting in confusion, stress, and emotional turmoil.

    The neuroscience of affair disclosure

    It's a sort of therapeutic gospel to assume that discovering that your partner is having an affair is a traumatic experience. Some might argue further that it is emotional abuse to subject a loved one to the experience of betrayal trauma.

    Within a paradigm of trauma, we see three distinct behaviors from the hurt partner; 

    1. hyper-vigilance, 
    2. triggering flashbacks, and 
    3. what Shirley Glass (2003) describes as "an obsessive need to hear the story."

    Helping a couple to heal from infidelity requires working with them to resolve the great irony of affair recovery. The perpetrator must become the healer. 

    Timelines for healing

    Neuroscience tells us that for about a year after the revelation, the hurt partner may experience profound mood changes, declines in physical health, and cognitive impairments.

    Post-traumatic reactions tend to fall into three categories—hyper-arousal, intrusion, and constriction.

    Triggering is a form of intrusion. Some client insist on replacing cars, homes, jobs, and even communities when they are strongly associated with the affair partner.

    Hurt partners also obsess while the involved partner tends to suppress, and research tells us this is a fact of the role; it is not a gender-driven behavior. However, you might consider that women tend to obsess and men tend to suppress.

    Five things to do for the hurt partner to manage your brain

    (1) Keep a journal

    Perhaps the best advice for hurt spouses comes from trauma studies. Keeping a journal of your deepest feelings and thoughts is vital. Shirley Glass (2004), it didn't matter whether you used a computer or a pen and paper. Recent studies suggest that going retro with a pencil and colored markers will be more helpful.

    Play with your voice and write from different perspectives. Let minority "selves" weigh in and have a voice as well.

    Embrace contradiction. Survivors of traumatic stress who keep a journal have a higher T cell count and better overall physical health.

    (2) Write letters

    …. but not email.

    Handwritten letters invite you to slow down and express yourself carefully and precisely. I tell clients that after the disclosure of an affair, conversations are like hockey games. But for affair recovery to happen, it responds more like golf.

    We respect the lay of the emotional landscape. Write the questions in your letters. Let the vigilant part of you do its job.

    (3) Schedule worry time

    It would help if you gave yourself time to worry, but don't let worry and grief ruin all your waking moments. You probably have other people relying on you.

    Give yourself from twenty minutes to an hour to obsess and worry and schedule it. When intrusive thoughts come up at inconvenient times, don't distract yourself. Tell them to come back at your scheduled "worry time."

    It sounds silly, but the brain is a resilient creature of habit. Instill new coping habits to help you get through the challenging first year.

    (4) Change the "channel"

    Glass suggests another intervention that works with how your brain operates. When unwanted thoughts come, imagine your mind is a TV set. Imagine changing the channel to another program. Install another "channel," one that involves a compelling future. 

    (5) Thought dispersal through the vagus nerve

    Using physical cues can help stop intrusive thoughts. These cues include tapping, using a rubber band, or pressing your fingernails into your palm. Neuroscience that impacts marital affairs includes thought patterns in the early stages of discovery that are persistent and intrusive.

    Goal: Extreme self-care

    As the hurt partner, you need extreme self-care to navigate your emotions and the physiological impacts as well. If you manage well, your triggers will fade to twinges.

    Your mood will settle. Your paranoia and hypersensitivity will settle with therapeutic help. Hopefully, it will evolve into a stance toward your partner, reflecting your preference for security and accountability.

    But ultimately, discovering an affair is challenging in a relationship. It can have the effect of a forceful trauma. The stress on the brain may induce hopelessness, paralysis, and a sense of profound self-loathing.

    intensive marriage counseling retreats can help you confront doubts and fears and learn from the affair. It can help you find a life with more hope, the willingness to take action, and be open in a way that might be new to you. You will both learn how to discuss what happened and what it will take to restore trust, intimacy, and connection.

    The question is, what do we recover into? The answer starts with meaning. Couples who construct a narrative of understanding and meaning can achieve a deeper and more abiding connection for having gone through the fire together.

    Ready for a change in your relationship?

    It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

    Dr. Kathy McMahon


    Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

    Leave a Reply

    Please note that your name will be displayed with your comment.

    Your email address will not be published.

    {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}