A relationship breakup can be an emotionally painful experience, and one that can have negative implications for both mental and physical health. A new study, however, suggests that we can mend a broken heart simply by believing that we are doing something to help.

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Researchers say that the placebo effect could help to ease the emotional pain of a relationship breakup.

Many of us have experienced the breakdown of a romantic relationship. Whether it was with your high school sweetheart or your spouse of 25 years, there is no denying the emotional pain that comes with a breakup.

“Breaking up with a partner is one of the most emotionally negative experiences a person can have, and it can be an important trigger for developing psychological problems,” says first study author Leonie Koban, a postdoctoral research associate for the University of Colorado Boulder (UC Boulder).

Koban notes that the pain of a relationship breakup can increase the risk of developing depression by as much as 20 times in the subsequent 12 months.

However, she and her colleagues suggest that there might be a simple way to reduce the intensity of such pain – just believe that you are doing something to make yourself feel better.

Numerous studies have shown that placebos – a pill, shot, or other procedure that has no active therapeutic components – may be beneficial for a wealth of conditions, including chronic pain, migraine, and even Parkinson’s disease. This phenomenon is known as “the placebo effect.”

For their study – recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience – Koban and team set out to investigate the effect of placebos on the emotional pain caused by relationship breakups.

The researchers enrolled 40 adults to the study, all of whom had experienced an “unwanted romantic breakup” in the previous 6 months.

Each participant was shown images of their ex-partner and asked to describe their breakup, in order to trigger emotional pain. They were then shown images of a good friend of the same gender.

In between images, participants were also subject to physical pain in the form of hot stimuli on their left forearm. They were also asked to rate their physical and emotional pain on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very bad and 5 being very good.

Throughout the experiment, subjects underwent functional MRI, which was used to measure their brain activity.

The team found that brain activity in response to emotional and physical pain – although not identical – was very similar.

According to senior author Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder, this finding alone shows that emotional pain is “neurochemically real.”

Next, the subjects were divided into two groups. One group was given a placebo in the form of a nasal spray and was told that it was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain.” The other group was told that the nasal spray was a simple saline solution.

The participants then repeated the previous experiment, whereby they were subject to emotional and physical pain.

Compared with participants who were told that they received a saline solution, subjects who believed they were receiving a “powerful analgesic” reported a reduction in both physical and emotional pain.

The placebo group also showed differences in brain activity when shown images of their former partners – for instance, they demonstrated an increase in activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with emotional change, as well as a decrease in activity in brain regions related to rejection.

Furthermore, the placebo group showed an increase in activity in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), which corresponded with reports of low emotional and physical pain. The team explains that the PAG is an area of the midbrain that regulates levels of painkilling chemicals called opioids, as well as neurotransmitters associated with mood, such as dopamine.

The team speculates that placebos trigger reductions in emotional and physical pain by prompting the release of such chemicals.

“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,” explains Wager.

While further studies are needed to gain a better understanding of how placebos might benefit emotional pain, the researchers believe that their findings may be welcome news for individuals who are going through a breakup.

What is becoming more and more clear is that expectations and predictions have a very strong influence on basic experiences, on how we feel and what we perceive. Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better.”

Leonie Koban

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