Picture this: You’re gorging on chocolate (or your own go-to comfort food), watching sad movies, tissues in hand. Maybe it is the blues from the news lately, or maybe you had a bad day. Or maybe you are in a post-breakup slump. (Ahem.)
Perhaps your particular brand of self-soothing is less of a cliché, though. Maybe you are just curling in the fetal position, fighting through the blues and generally swearing off the opposite sex for a long time. In any case, it hurts.
In the intense emotional trauma of a breakup, what is the secret elixir to finally heal our shattered hearts and lighten our dark disposition? Is it the movies? The late night calls to friends? Is it retreating in a hold of alone-ness? Or is it actually less to do with our physical actions, and more about our mindset?
Findings from a recent study revealed that it could be much more to do with our beliefs of said therapeutic method of healing, rather than what we’re actually doing to heal a broken heart. The power of belief, if you will. Rippling to other situations beyond break-ups, this study conducted by the University of Colorado at Boulder examined the role of the placebo effect on those experiencing emotional and physical pain. The study itself was in the context of breakup blues, but the implications of the evidence provide some insight on how we can bounce back from many kinds of emotional (or even physical) upset.
The results? The secret elixir? Read on!
The study involved 40 participants who had all gone through tough break ups in the past six months. In a brain lab, their neurological and behavioral images where examined in regards to how the placebo effect impacts their emotional and physical perception of pain.
What’s the placebo effect?
Basically, a placebo is an effect (often beneficial) produced by a ‘neutral’ action that actually cannot be due to the treatment, but more to the belief in the treatment. Think people taking a pill for pain, feeling the pain go away, only later to find out that the pill was nothing more than a sugar pill with no active ingredient. Placebo effect studies are vast and varied. Just Google the word and countless show up.
Back to the study…
Images were taken of the volunteer’s brain activity (specifically looking at the regions of emotional and physical pain) when shown pictures of their ex, and also when subject to physical pain. They were then asked to rate their perceived experience of pain. Tor Wager, a professor leading the study, concludes that the regions in the brain for emotional pain and physical pain from the stimulus were very similar. This reveals that even emotional pain from, say, a breakup, is ‘neuro-chemically real pain’, lighting up areas associated with physical sensations of pain.
When the placebo was administered—in this case, a nasal spray—half of the participants were told it would have a chemical effect and half were told it would have no effect. When they returned to imaging their brain, the placebo group reported to experience less pain, and the brain imaging supports this with less activity in the pain areas.
Just the belief that we are doing anything that may help can actually prove beneficial to ease our emotional (or physical) pain. When it comes to a break up, well, if we see watching rom-coms and comfort-eating as helping us, then it may actually help. If we feel that going for a walk when we are not so well will give us positive results, chances are, it will.
This study illustrates the amazing power of expectation (in the form of placebo), and how we can use our own expectation and beliefs to our advantage.
(Journal Reference: 1. Leonie Koban, Ethan Kross, Choong-Wan Woo, Luka Ruzic, Tor D. Wager. Frontal-Brainstem Pathways Mediating Placebo Effects on Social Rejection. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2017; 37 (13): 3621 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2658-16.2017)
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