How to Help Fix a Broken Heart

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

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder/EurekAlert


Healing a broken heart, Part I – Healthy Grieving

When my heart was broken by a failed romance I had the advantages of  49 years of life experience and training as a psychotherapist.  I knew something about how emotions work, had survived difficult times before and knew I would live.

Still, I was devastated. Feelings are feelings and I was in pain. By using my resources and searching for new ones, I did survive.  Here is what helped me recover more quickly:

1. CRY and don’t ANALYZE
Crying literally causes a chemical change that gives you relief. Crying rids your body of stress hormones that keep you sad. Let yourself cry and get these chemicals back in balance. This is usually not the time to figure out what went wrong. There is a good reason to wait before you analyze. Because of the way the brain works, when you are feeling sad you tend to think negative thoughts.  Often trying to figure out what went wrong when you are sad, you end up with finding lots of negatives that make you feel worse. Just cry and in about 10 to 20 minutes your mood will improve.

The same pain pathways that create physical pain also are involved in emotional pain, so it actually helps emotional pain to take painkillers. A study done at Ohio State University suggests that acetaminophen-containing drugs like Tylenol may reduce the intensity of emotions. It may blunt positive emotions as well, so use with care.


Research shows that touch releases positive neurochemistry. Get and give all the hugs you can. Hug your friends, your cat, your stuffed animals, yourself. People need tactile stimulation.

Exercise may be the last thing you want to do. You may not feel like moving at all. In long-term relationships, just being around your partner stimulates your body to make endorphins, one of the bodies “feel good” chemicals. When your loved one isn’t there anymore, you don’t create as many.  It is one reason you feel so lousy when a relationship ends. Exercise is a good way to generate endorphins and replenish the neurochemicals you’ve lost.

Chocolate contains neurochemicals that our bodies create when we fall in love!  Consider chocolate to be  “replacement therapy”.

There is strong temptation is to tell yourself you are unloveable and something is wrong with you. The truth is that you were lovable enough to get the love in the first place. You didn’t intentionally lose it. Focus on your lovable qualities and attributes. Write them down. Make a running list. Also make a list of positive things you still have in your life:  health, family, friends, pets, skills, favorite activities, even TV shows, music or books.

Lastly, I reminded myself that when my children hurt  I gave them comfort, sympathy, and a chance to tell me what happened.  As an adult, we often blame ourselves thinking we should know better and end up feeling worse.

I came to believe strongly that the pain of my broken heart was enough punishment for any wrong choice or mistake made!




Part III, Putting the Loss Behind You





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