As Neil Sedaka once harmonized for all the boppin’ kids, breaking up is hard to do. If only he knew about this new study. It suggests you can bounce back from a breakup just by believing you’re doing something to help yourself get over it.
Image via NBC.
The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found evidence that a common mental trick can influence brain regions associated with emotional regulation and lessen the perception of social pain, like when you’re wallowing over an ex. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder measured the neurological and behavioural impacts the placebo effect had on participants who recently had their hearts broken.
Volunteers who recently experienced a breakup were told to bring a photo of their ex and a photo of friend to a brain-imaging lab. While inside a fMRI machine, they were shown images of their ex, their friend, and also subjected to physical pain. Throughout the test, subjects rated how they felt and the fMRI machine watched for changes in brain activity. Unsurprisingly, brain activity looked similar when the subjects felt either emotional or physical pain. So that pain you’re feeling right now is real.
Then, the subjects were given a saline nasal spray. Half were told it was a new medicine that helped with reducing emotional pain, and the other half were told it was just a saline solution. After going through the same tests again, the researchers found that the placebo group felt less physical and emotional pain. Furthermore, subjects in the placebo group showed more activity in the regions of the brain associated with modulating emotions and dealing with pain. Tor Wager, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and senior author of the study, explains:
The current view is that you have positive expectations and they influence activity in your prefrontal cortex, which in turn influences systems in your midbrain to generate neurochemical opioid or dopamine responses…
Basically, you believe you’re doing something that will make you feel better, so the brain responds and produces happy, painkilling brain chemicals. In the past, research has shown similar evidence that placebos can ease pain and other physical ailments, but this study is the first time placebos have been tested on those with emotional pain from “romantic rejection”.
It might seem silly to give yourself some “fake medicine” — be it good food, getting lost in a video game or TV show, a tub of ice cream, writing a song, a holiday, shopping, or a night out with friends — but the period after a breakup can be a dangerous one. The researchers warn that social pain like this makes you 20 times more likely to develop depression in the coming year, so reducing the intensity of said pain is important. Do something for you that you know makes you feel better and gives you hope. If you believe it will help you get over the heartbreak, it just might.