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As if recovery from intimate betrayal weren’t hard enough, nature complicates the process with symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS).

The most familiar type of PTS—the one that gets the most press—is caused by an acute stressor, that is, a life-threatening event that exerts an extreme reaction in the central nervous system (CNS). Examples are military combat, rape, mugging, a gun held to your head, a serious car crash—anything life-threatening.

The other type of PTS is caused by less intense but longer-lasting stressors, often suffered by people who are sued, put on trial for crimes, investigated by the IRS, persecuted, discriminated against, or continually ridiculed at work or school. This kind of response does not evoke a significant fear of harm or annihilation.

Instead, it brings a terrible dread of shame, humiliation, and isolation or loss of status and resources, if not personal freedom. It keeps the CNS at a chronic level of heightened stress. Intimate betrayal typically invokes this kind of PTS response.

I like the following physiological model to explain the kind of PTS that follows intimate betrayal. Suppose four columns are holding up the ceiling of the room you’re in now. No one else is in the room. Suddenly the column near the door buckles, blocking your path of escape.

If it falls, the ceiling will collapse. The only way to save yourself is to prop up the column with your shoulder until help arrives. About 24 hours later, help comes to secure the column and prop up the ceiling, safely relieving you of the burden. When you try to walk away, you are unable to straighten up and walk normally.

The over-exerted nerve endings in your shoulder, side, and leg muscles have paralyzed the tissue around them, temporarily rendering key muscles nearly immobile. The condition would gradually ease. Within about three days, you could finally stand up straight and enjoy full mobility.

But for another three days or so you would experience occasional muscle spasms in your shoulder, side, and legs, where most of the stress was concentrated. These are rough estimates of recovery time that do not allow for variations in age, health, muscle tone, flexibility, and so on, but you get the idea. There is a prolonged recovery process from prolonged stress.

A similar condition occurs with emotional stressors that go on for a long time, such as walking on eggshells in your home, living with continual criticism or contempt, or suspicions of deceit, infidelity, or embezzlement by an intimate partner. Once the stressor has finally passed—the betrayal is exposed, and the initial free-fall condition has abated—the CNS does not return to normal for quite some time.

Instead of localized spasms of nerves and muscles trying to return to normal functioning, the entire CNS must recalibrate to find a normal range of arousal, without the chronic stressor “pressing” against it.

The mental equivalent of muscle spasms during the CNS recalibration process feels like waves of negative emotion, which seem to come out of nowhere, with little or no warning. Often with no discernible trigger, waves of emotion seize control of your body, making it tense, rigid, and agitated. They dominate your consciousness and make it seem like you’re incapable of thinking about anything other than how terrible you feel or how awful your partner is for making you feel so bad.

They typically start with a flash point—an abrupt awareness that you’re about to experience something horrid. A physical marker sometimes occurs with the flash point, something like a pit in your stomach, a sharp pain, muscular weakness, or blurred vision.

Here are the most common symptoms that come in waves during the recovery process:

You Are Not Your Symptoms

It’s important to know that PTS symptoms are not part of your personality. They are merely a delayed, mostly physiological response to past stressors. They are a perfectly natural stage of recovery from a prolonged period of stress.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Essential Reads

The most damaging aspects of PTS symptoms are secondary symptoms or symptoms about symptoms. Secondary symptoms emerge from the meaning we give to primary symptoms, which have no more inherent meaning than gas or any other physiological response.

If you think the abrupt waves of emotion mean that you’re crazy, or that you will never be well or happy, or that you’re defective or dying, then the effects are horrible, as you’re flooded with adrenaline and cortisol from the secondary symptoms on top of the primary ones.

To heal and grow, control the meaning of your emotional experience—what it means to you and about you. That is the secret of managing the intrusive symptoms of PTS that so often follow intimate betrayal.

How to Manage the Symptoms

Handle the waves of PTS feelings with gentleness and care. There is good news in them. Their very existence means that the stressor has been removed. No one has nightmares about bombs dropping during the war.

While stressors are active, the CNS goes into survival mode with no mental resources allotted to “getting back to normal.” Only after the stressor is over does the CNS begin to recalibrate to normal.

The best way to cope with the waves of negative emotion is to sit back and let them wash over you. “Oh, here’s one of those temporary waves. It doesn’t mean anything, and it will soon pass. I’m OK now, and I’ll be better in a few minutes.”

The symptoms are a lot like waves at the beach. If you try to stand up to crashing ocean waves, they can grind you into the sand. But if you dive under them, you’re aware of only a force whooshing quickly over you.

Allow the emotions to wash over you like the sensation of swimming under waves at the beach. Then they will last no more than a few minutes, with minimal discomfort. Managed in this way, they will most likely diminish in frequency and intensity, until they stop altogether.

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