A Placebo Could Help You Get Over Your Ex

What’s the best way to mend a broken heart? Some would advise you to start dating a new person right away, or tell you to travel or take up a hobby. But a team of scientists learned that doing something you believe will help you get over your ex can actually ease the intensity of the bad feelings, even depression, we experience when we’re dumped.

Placebo pbs rewireFirst of all, what does heartbreak feel like? Brain imaging of 40 people who had been broken up with in the past six months showed that the parts of their brains that lit up when they were burned with a hot object were similar to those that lit up when they saw photos of their exes and talked about splitting up.

A little good news to keep in mind when you’re feeling low: Those similarities suggests the pain you might associate with a bad breakup isn’t just in your head, the University of Colorado Boulder researchers wrote.

“Know that your pain is real—neurochemically real,” said Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and author of the study, to the university.

A medication for heartbreak?

But the researchers also found that after half of the heartbroken folks used a nasal spray they were told was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain” they felt less physical and emotional pain related to the breakup.

Their brains also responded differently to photos of their exes after the placebo spray. Activity in the area of the brain involved in modulating emotions perked up and areas associated with rejection calmed down. An area of the brain called the periaqueductal gray that plays a role in controlling levels of painkilling chemicals and happy neurotransmitters like dopamine also kicked into gear.

Placebo pbs rewireInteresting stuff. But it doesn’t mean you need to run out and buy some saline spray. If you’ve been dumped recently, think about things that would make you feel better. And then actually do one of those things. These findings suggest that doing something you believe will help you get over a breakup—nasal spray or otherwise—is enough to ease bad feelings associated with it, the researchers wrote.

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

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.