Believing that you can get over it can significantly help[ heal a broken heart. [Image: Bigstock]

Fake it til you make it – how the placebo effect can mend broken hearts too

28 April, 2017

Natural Health News — Feeling heartbroken from a recent breakup? Just believing you’re doing something to help yourself get over it can influence brain regions associated with emotions and lessen the perception of pain.

That’s the takeaway from a new US study that measured the neurological and behavioural impacts the placebo effect had on a group of recently broken-hearted volunteers.

“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,” said first author and postdoctoral research associate Leonie Koban, noting that such social pain is associated with a 20-fold higher risk of developing depression in the coming year. “In our study, we found a placebo can have quite strong effects on reducing the intensity of social pain.”

For decades, research has shown that placebos – sham treatments with no active ingredients – can measurably ease pain, Parkinson’s disease and other physical ailments.

What you need to know

» Placebos – sham treatments with no active ingredients – have been shown to produce powerful healing effects in the body.

» Now a new Us study has shown they may also have a role in healing emotional trauma.

» Brain scans showed that in recently broken-hearted volunteers a nasal spray, which they were told helped reduce emotional pain, areas of the brain that regulate emotions were powerfully stimulated.

Emotional responses

But this new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to measure their impact on emotional pain from romantic rejection.

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.

The researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, to measure brain responses to pictures of their ex, a supportive friend of the same gender and to physical pain. This provided a baseline against which the scientists could measure the effect of the placebo.  White the fMRI machine tracked their brain activity, participants were also asked to give a subjective rating to how they felt about these things on a scale of 1 (very bad) to 5 (very good).

While not identical, the regions that lit up during physical and emotional pain were similar.

This finding alone sends an important message to the heartbroken, said senior author Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder: “Know that your pain is real — neuro-chemically real.”

Brain changes

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.

Using the fMRI again, 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.

Brain imaging showed that 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 grey (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,” said Wager.

Do anything

Previous studies have shown that the placebo effect alone not only eases depression, but may actually make antidepressants work better.

“Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact,” said Wager.

Bottom line, if you’ve been dumped recently: “Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better,” Said Koban