Moving on from an ex can be tough, especially if you were the one let go. But according to a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience, the secret to feeling better is simple: Just do something, anything, that you think will help—because it probably will.
Psychologists from the University of Colorado Boulder recruited 40 volunteers who had been broken up with in the past six months and asked them each to bring two photos to a brain-imaging lab: one of their ex, and one of a platonic friend. Everyone was given a functional MRI while being shown one photo after the other.
Between photos, researchers applied heat applied to everyone’s arm with a temperature-controlled device to stimulate mild-to-moderate pain. Throughout the scan, they were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of 1 to 5.
Similar brain regions were activated when people felt the painful heat and saw photos of their exes—validating the idea of emotional pain. It’s real, the study authors say, and has a measurable effect on chemicals in the brain.
Then, the people in the study were given a nasal spray. Half were told it was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain,” while the other half were told the truth—that it was a simple saline spray.
In subsequent MRI scans, those who thought they’d inhaled a pain-relief spray reported less physical and emotional pain during the experiments. Their brains also responded differently when shown photos of their exes: Activity increased sharply in brain regions involved in controlling emotion, and decreased in areas associated with rejection.
Brain activity also increased in a region called the periaqueductal gray, or PAG, which helps control painkilling and mood-boosting neurochemicals like opioids and dopamine.
The authors say this is the first study to measure a placebo drug’s impact on emotional pain from romantic rejection, and it suggests that positive expectations may be enough to influence areas of the brain normally triggered by feel-good chemicals.
People may be able to use the power of expectation to their advantage, they add. “Beliefs and expectations matter, in the sense that they influence our brain function and physiology as well as our feelings and decisions,” says co-author Tor Wager, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder.
In other words, if people believe that a certain remedy will help mend their broken heart, there’s a good chance it will. “It might open your mind to noticing more positive aspects of your experience and give you a more optimistic outlook,” he says.
That’s important, because breakups can be some of the most emotionally negative experiences a person endures. This type of social pain has even been associated with a 20-fold higher risk of developing depression in the coming year, the study notes.
Steven Meyers, professor and associate chair at Roosevelt University, says one important feature of the study was that the participants had all been dumped—meaning they weren’t just grieving the loss of their partner, but also a loss of control over their relationship.
“Helplessness is one of the main feelings that worsen anxiety and depression,” says Meyers, who was not involved in the research. The placebo nasal-spray treatments likely helped the participants feel they were taking steps to feel better, he adds. “A powerful antidote to worry or sadness is to take charge in your life in some way.”
Meyers suggests a few ways to take charge of your emotions after heartbreak. Friends and family can be a source of support and distraction, he says, and seeking out connections can help you avoid isolation. He also recommends keeping a journal for several days. “Writing out feelings and thoughts allows people to purge distress from their system, and has been shown to be a powerful intervention,” he says.
Finally, challenge negative thoughts with reason and evidence, Meyers says. “People can become more upset when they magnify their situation by thinking something like, ‘I’m going to be alone forever,’” he says. “Although it can be hard to do, writing out reasons why these thoughts may or may not be true can put things in perspective.”
Being intentional about these actions makes them even more effective, says Meyers. And if this new research holds true, simply trusting that they’ll work will make them more powerful, too.
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