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Would you take a pill to forget your toxic ex?

A new study has found that taking a beta-blocker alongside ‘reconsolidation therapy’ has the power to dull memories of painful romantic betrayal

We’ve all been there. Skipping through all your playlists because every song reminds you of them. Gagging and heaving at the sight of another innocent couple holding hands in public. Sulking around in your pyjamas and living off sugar and carbs from the corner shop, à la Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer. And so much crying. 

Most of us would do absolutely anything to make the pain go away in those first few weeks (and months) post-breakup. It’s arguably why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains such an enduring and engaging watch: you follow Joel and Clementine as they impulsively erase two years’ worth of their own memories in a bid to move on from one another, and think “you know what? Fair enough”.

If you’ve ever watched the film in the throes of a breakup, it’s likely you’ve wished that similar memory-erasing technology existed in the real world, and that it was possible to scrub every last trace of your ex from your heartbreak-addled brain. And now, new research has found that this kind of procedure might not be confined to the realm of science fiction for much longer.


The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, sought to help those suffering with adjustment disorder, a condition that can occur in response to a significant life event or change – such as a particularly difficult breakup. 

Obviously, it’s normal to feel a bit out of sorts following a breakup, and we shouldn’t necessarily seek to pathologise normal (albeit painful) experiences. But those with adjustment disorder experience intense, lingering symptoms that interfere with their day-to-day lives. These may include insomnia, depression, social withdrawal, and difficulty concentrating. In severe cases, adjustment disorder can even lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

For the study, scientists asked test subjects suffering from adjustment disorder to recall traumatic memories of a “romantic betrayal” – such as infidelity – while under the influence of propranolol, a beta-blocker that is usually prescribed for anxiety disorders, high blood pressure, and migraines. As the drug has also been shown to weaken the ‘emotional tone’ of memories by blocking adrenergic pathways, researchers wanted to see if the emotional hurt of remembering painful memories would be dulled under the influence of the drug.


The subjects were instructed to first write down the traumatic memories before taking propranolol and then reading the narrative aloud, noting down any reactions they had as they went along, such as sweating, trembling, or tension. This is called ‘reconsolidation therapy’.

“Reconsolidation therapy consists [of] recalling a bad memory under the influence of propranolol with the help of a trained therapist,” Dr Alain Brunet, a pioneer of reconsolidation therapy and one of the study authors, explained to PsyPost. “This treatment approach is a translational treatment stemming from the research in neuroscience which stipulates that a recalled memory needs to be saved again to long-term memory storage in order to persist. Interfering with the storage process will yield a degraded – less emotional – memory.”


Dr Brunet’s prior research into reconsolidation therapy has proved effective with PTSD sufferers, with patient testimonials on his website vouching for the efficacy of the procedure.

Dr Brunet wanted to see if the same procedure could yield similarly positive results for those struggling to process traumatic breakups. “Romantic betrayal [...] seemed like an interesting topic to study because, first, it is very distressing,” Dr Brunet told PsyPost. “Second, it is one of the most common reasons why individuals seek professional help. Finally, there is very little help available for romantically-betrayed individuals who do not wish to return with their partner.”

The good news is that the results from this initial study were positive. Of the 55 test subjects, 48 completed all five of the propranolol writing sessions, and 35 of those said in a follow-up survey that they experienced improvements in their symptoms for at least four months after the sessions.


On the one hand, this is great news. As Dr Brunet says, heartbreak can (and does) spiral into a fully-fledged mental health issue like adjustment disorder – so if something like reconsolidation therapy can help people, then what’s the issue?

But on the other hand, there’s perhaps a risk that reconsolidation therapy could be overprescribed, so big pharma companies can shill more propranolol. And if that happens, there’s a chance it could result in people trying to block out memories of exes who weren’t necessarily abusive and, in reality, were just a little bit shit.

And doesn’t that go against what Eternal Sunshine was trying to say? Aren’t we led to believe that without the ability to learn from their mistakes, Joel and Clementine are doomed to repeat the past? That we need lows to appreciate highs? Part of me thinks that if my own memories of my exes weren’t, to this day, so visceral, so painful, so cringe, I’d still be stuck in the same cycle of dating different iterations of the same emotionally-stunted, commitment-averse man-child.

But then again, ask me the same question 24 hours after I’ve been dumped, and I’d probably bite anyone who told me I needed to “sit with my feelings” and chew my own fingers off for a crumb of propranolol if it would make the pain go away.