The University of Colorado study, published in the Society for Neuroscience journal, explored the effect of 'placebos' (fake treatments that had no active ingredients) on the effect of 40 volunteers who had recently gone through a breakup.
The first author and postdoctoral research associate of the study, Leonie Koban noted that social pain like breakups is associated with a 20 times higher risk of developing depression in the year after the event.
"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," she said. "In our study, we found a placebo can have quite strong effects on reducing the intensity of social pain."
Subjects were asked to bring in a photo of their ex and a photo of one of their close friends, and researchers measured the effect their reactions to viewing each image separately had on their brain activity. They were also subjected to physical pain, to show the difference in brain activity between physical and emotional pain. They were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of 1 (very bad) to 5 (very good).
The fMRI scans showed that the regions of the brain lighting up between physical and emotional pain were very similar.
After taking the initial scans, researchers gave the subjects a nasal spray. Half of them were told that it had a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain”, while the other half were told it was just a saline solution.
Subjects used the spray, then were measured in the MRI machine again, and the results were staggering. Amazingly, the placebo group felt less physical and emotional pain and responded better to the photo of their ex.
What this study shows is that just thinking you're doing something to help you get over your breakup can have a significant effect in helping you move on.
In fact, previous studies on depression have shown that the placebo effect of anti-depressants can actually have more of an impact than the active drug, according to senior author Tor Wager, professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder.
“Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact,” said Wager. “In some cases, the actual chemical in the drug may matter less than we once thought.”
So getting over a breakup can be simple: just do anything that you believe will help you feel better, and it probably will.