Romantic breakups can spark severe trauma in young people – new study

Romantic breakups can spark severe trauma in young people – new study

What should I study? What do I want to be? How will I pay for my education? Who do I want to spend the rest of my life with? These are the life-changing decisions many young people face.

Emerging adulthood (between the ages of 18 and 25 years) is a critical stage in the life course, especially for identity development. Emerging adults are neither dependent adolescents nor independent adults. It is a time of exploration and frequent change.

And all this is happening while their brains are still developing, especially in areas associated with higher cognitive and emotional functioning. This functioning helps an individual plan, monitor and successfully execute their goals.

Amid all these important life choices, romantic relationship breakups can be devastating. After a breakup people may experience poorer academic performance, intrusive thoughts of the ex-partner and intense grief, and can even attempt suicide.

Yet, breakups among emerging adults are often dismissed or trivialised as a rite of passage. A trauma response is shrugged off as exaggerated or overblown. Added to this, the psychiatric literature does not see breakups as potentially traumatic events.

As a mental health researcher with experience in romantic attachment and trauma research, I co-authored a paper exploring romantic relationship breakups as potentially traumatic events among university students. The research aimed to investigate whether their experiences fitted the official psychiatric diagnosis of post-traumatic stress.

Identifying potential trauma following a breakup could help young adults get appropriate treatment and support.

In several studies we tested the idea that breakups can be deemed a potentially traumatic event based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition (DSM-5) definition. Mental healthcare providers use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a guide to diagnose patients with, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder.

A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is based on various criteria, including Criterion A: exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Criterion A acts as the “gatekeeper” to this diagnosis.

Based on their self-reported responses on the Post-traumatic Stress Checklist for DSM-5, our participants fell into three groups:

  • Group one (breakup group): 886 participants who endorsed post-traumatic stress symptoms based on their most traumatic breakup.
  • Group two (trauma group): 592 participants who endorsed post-traumatic stress symptoms based on a DSM-5-defined traumatic event (for example physical and sexual assault).
  • Group three (control group): 544 participants who endorsed post-traumatic stress symptoms based on their most stressful experience (for example relocating homes or a parental divorce).

We found breakup participants, those in Group One, reported significantly more post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as flashbacks, recurring memories, and nightmares about their former partner, than both the other two groups.

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