Now a University of Colorado Boulder study finds that the placebo effect can reduce the intensity of social pain from a romantic breakup. It turns out that just believing you’re doing something to help yourself get over your ex can influence brain regions associated with emotional regulation and lessen the perception of pain.
(An aside from P & J: It’s possible that placebo could generalize to any experienced loss.)
In our decades of psychotherapy practice we’ve seen that whether you are the one who wants to break up or the one who has been left is one of the most emotionally negative experiences a person can have. It also can be a trigger for developing psychological problems Social pain is associated with a 20-fold higher risk of developing depression in the coming year.*
Previous studies have shown that the placebo effect alone not only eases depression, but may actually make antidepressants work better.
The Study published in the Journal of Neuroscience:
“Researchers recruited 40 volunteers who had experienced an “unwanted romantic breakup” in the past six months. They were asked to bring a photo of their ex and a photo of a same-gendered good friend to a brain-imaging lab.”
“Inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, the participants were shown images of their former partner and asked to recall the breakup. Then they were shown images of their friend. They were also subjected to physical pain (a hot stimulus on their left forearm).”
“As these stimuli were alternately repeated, the subjects rated how they felt on a scale of one (very bad) to five (very good). Meanwhile, the fMRI machine tracked their brain activity.”
While not identical, the regions that lit up during physical and emotional pain were similar.
Here’s the Placebo:
“The subjects were then taken out of the machine and given a nasal spray. Half were told it was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain.” Half were told it was a simple saline solution.”
“Back inside the machine, the subjects were again shown images of their ex and subjected to pain. The placebo group not only felt less physical pain and felt better emotionally, but their brain responded differently when shown the ex.” Activity in the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — an area involved with modulating emotions — increased sharply. Across the brain, areas associated with rejection quieted.
“Notably, after the placebo, when participants felt the best they also showed increased activity in an area of the midbrain called the periaqueductal gray (PAG). The PAG plays a key role in modulating levels of painkilling brain chemicals, or opioids, and feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine. (While the study did not look specifically at whether the placebo prompted the release of such chemicals, the authors suspect this could be what’s happening.)”
“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.”**
“Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact. In some cases, the actual chemical in the drug may matter less than we once thought.”**
The authors said the latest study not only helps them better understand how emotional pain plays out in the brain, but can also hint at ways people can use the power of expectation to their advantage. “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.”
“Know that your pain is real — neurochemically real.”
Bottom line, if you’ve been dumped (or been the dumpee), “Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better.”
*Dr. Leonie Koban, first author and postdoctoral research associate .
** Dr. Tor Wager, professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Colorado, Boulder, senior author