In the wake of the discovery of an affair, you are likely to experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings, ranging from numb (non-feeling) to feeling completely out of control and ‘crazy’. This is the result of Post Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD). These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation, and we want to help you work through some of the reactions. Let’s take a closer look at the causes of, symptoms of, and treatment for PISD, along with some tools to help you minimize the potentially damaging impact of these reactions.
What Is Post Infidelity Stress Disorder?
So, what exactly is Post Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD)? It is not an actual diagnosis, however, post-discovery of an affair, the reactions often parallel those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In PTSD, one of the required criteria is that the person is exposed to death, the threat of death, threatened serious injury or actual/threatened sexual trauma through a number of different means. In an affair, while the threat may not have been to one’s physical life, it certainly was an attack and threat against the emotional wellbeing of the individual leading to a loss of emotional safety and security. The person that you trusted the most and expected to protect and care for you was the person that hurt you, leaving you in a state of incomprehension and, as a result, likely leading to a number of reactions. The reactions that can occur as a result of that realization can often feel so overwhelming that one can either feel stuck and not knowing how to proceed, or so reactive that the decisions being made can be damaging to the self, others, and potentially your relationship if you’re hoping to reconcile.
Symptoms Of Post Infidelity Stress Disorder
Post affair reactions often cluster into three categories: intrusion, hyperarousal, and constriction.
Signs of intrusion can encompass flashbacks, nightmares, and obsessions. It occurs as a result of images (mental or experienced) associated with the betrayal. Things that you didn’t give a second thought to before the affair become sources of pain. You can be watching a TV show, listening to a song, having a seemingly ‘normal conversation’, and even seeing ordinary objects and all of a sudden a flood of intrusive thoughts, memories, and flashbacks come barging in which can leave you holding your breath, tearing up, “breaking down” and starting to obsess. You become someone unrecognizable to yourself, which may be part of the reason you feel “crazy”. Betrayed partners find themselves obsessing over every detail, perhaps developing fixations on details that don’t quite add up, in order to reconstruct the truth. You likely feel out of control and feeling like you can’t get away from the overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
Signs of constriction include inhibiting thoughts, feelings, and activities associated with the betrayal. This can often mean feeling numb, engaging in detachment/withdrawal from other people and showing no interest/avoidance in normal/once enjoyed activities. Individuals can often shift from excessive emotionality and intrusive symptoms to avoidance and withdrawal. Often times, individuals are so exhausted by the preoccupation with the betrayal that they come to a state where they don’t want to deal with anything associated with it. This is typically a temporary state and may seem like it’s providing a sense of relief, sometimes being used as a way to protect the self from something that is too emotionally painful. However, in order to recover/heal from infidelity, the betrayed partner needs to engage in the process of emotional integration. In other words, gradually working towards feeling feelings.
Long after the discovery of an affair, the betrayed partner can remain super sensitive and super alert, ready to react to any perceived threat. The reaction becomes overreaction. Protection becomes overprotection. Manifestations of hyperarousal include physical and emotional hyperarousal and hypervigilance. Hyperarousal can include being startled by sounds, irritability, outbursts of anger, difficulty with sleep, difficulty concentrating, and changes in eating patterns. Intense feelings are common, but it is important to be conscientious of how these feelings are expressed in order to avoid further damage. Hypervigilance is one of the most common responses of hyperarousal, it is an appropriate reaction to loss of safety. This means that you are likely watching for signs of further danger. Individuals who were once fully trusting and secure can turn into professional detectives, watching out for the smallest of details, becoming paranoid, becoming nagging, all in an effort to protect from further harm.
All these experiences (and the above are only some of the reactions) are normal reactions to a highly stressful and potentially traumatic experience. However, if left unchecked, they can lead to further unnecessary pain and additional negative consequences. The section below addresses some of the ways that one can work towards minimizing the potentially damaging impact of these reactions.
How To Treat Post Infidelity Stress Disorder
Normalize your experience: Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that obsessive thinking is a normal response to trauma. As you take the steps to deal with the new reality (with challenging previously held assumptions and integrating them with reality), you’ll likely have intrusive obsessive thoughts.
Writing: An intervention that has helped when working through intense/intrusive obsessive thoughts includes writing down one’s thoughts. It may sound cliché, but writing provides an opportunity to be uncensored in one’s thoughts and feelings, allowing for further exploration of self, often providing an opportunity to gain new insights and clarification. It can help you keep track of unanswered questions and can help you clarify your thoughts to be better prepared and in a better emotional state when communicating with your partner (if this is desired).
Schedule worry times: Set a specific time each day (try to be consistent) and for an allotted amount of time (no longer than an hour), use that time to worry, obsess, and revisit and frustrating images. If thoughts creep up during the day, gently remind yourself that you’re saving them for ‘worry time’. This is to help intrusive thoughts from taking over the whole day. Over time, worry time decreases in length and in intensity.
Change the channel: Imagine your mind as something that can be controlled by a remote control. Whenever you’re overcome by undesired images/thoughts, change the channel to something that is more desirable (perhaps a positive memory with someone else, a hope for the future, visualizing something different).
Try to predict and prepare for flashbacks: Try to identify ‘triggers’ to flashbacks and if possible try to preplan for them. Try to have the betraying partner involved, validating your experiences along the way, and helping rewrite the script (i.e. having a more desirable experience be associated with the trigger).
Replace raging or unhelpful thoughts with more calm and helpful thoughts: When realizing that you’re ruminating or having specific thoughts, ask yourself “How is this helping me or my situation?” Sometimes the thoughts help keep us stuck and sometimes we feel entitled to the emotions (i.e. anger) that we feel, but try to remind yourself of the helpfulness of the thoughts behind the anger. What is your goal?
Self-Soothing techniques: Riding the wave (i.e. instead of fighting against the intrusive flashback, remind yourself of what it is and that the experience will pass); deep diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, exercising, treating physical illness, eating balanced meals, massages, meditation, prayer are all skills that can be implemented.
One day at a time/one moment at a time: Perhaps another cliché statement, but it is important to remind yourself that this moment is the moment you are in. Don’t get discouraged if healing is taking too long or if you have a bad moment. Don’t get discouraged if things seem fine for a month and you have a setback and it seems like you’re back at square one. Take each moment/day as it comes, preparing as necessary, but also reminding yourself that you can only do what you can do.
Obtain appropriate support/do not isolate: Oftentimes, the betrayed spouse can isolate and withdraw from others for various reasons. Perhaps they feel shame, perhaps they don’t want to deal with being ‘retriggered’ and with others’ questions, perhaps they just simply feel disconnected from others and feel like no one will understand. It is important to not isolate and not withdraw from the world. If your goal is to reconcile, find individuals that will support the relationship. Well-meaning individuals can do much damage when not taking into account where you are on the healing path. On a more positive side, positive supports can help us step out from the fog that engulfs us, can provide some normalcy in life through the use of positive experiences, and can provide us with a place to vent. Consider a support group. Read books related to the topic when appropriate. Engage in activities once enjoyed.
Counseling: Last, but not least, consider seeing a professional counselor. Seeing a counselor does not indicate that there is something wrong with you or that you are ‘crazy’. Seeing a counselor can provide you with an unbiased individual in your corner, a person that can help you traverse the healing process in a way that is less painful. The healing process will certainly be painful, but a counselor can help you learn some tools that can make the process more manageable. If you are working towards reconciliation, marriage counseling is also an option that should not be disregarded.
There are many layers in recovering from an affair and the above section is only a piece of the puzzle. The road to recovery and healing can be strenuous and complicated, but it is not hopeless. You are not alone, and you need not walk alone. There is always hope at Perspectives of Troy Counseling Centers. Call us for an appointment at 248-244-8644.
*Glass, S. (2003). Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity. New York: Free Press.
Harley, W. & Harley Chalmers, J. (2013). Surviving an Affair. Grand Rapids: Revell a division of Baker Publishing Group.
PTSD: National Center for PTSD
National Institute of Mental Health
Love Is War: Post Infidelity Stress Disorder