You’ve probably heard of the placebo effect before; it’s a common term in culture, and widely documented in medicine. Essentially, the placebo effect refers to a change in symptoms that comes as the result of a subject’s belief in treatment, as opposed to the treatment itself. Researchers at the University of Colorado explain that, while the placebo effect has been tested in the treatment of various forms of physical pain, it isn’t often applied to painful emotional feelings.
“Individuals who experience a targeted romantic rejection are 20 times more likely to develop depression than the general population,” the study reads, explaining why heartache is more than sad—it can potentially be dangerous to your health. So, in order to document the efficacy of placebo treatment, researchers studied the placebo effect on the pain of romantic social rejection versus the pain of being burned by something hot.
The social scientists gathered 40 people who had gone through an unwanted breakup in the previous six months. The subjects were then shown the images of their former loves and asked to focus on re-experiencing the emotions associated with that person, then rate how badly they felt on a scale of one to five. In a later trial, their arms were also exposed to varying degrees of heat, which they also had to rate on a scale of one to five.
After the first run-through, the researchers introduced a placebo in the form of a nasal spray. The scientists told half of the participants that the spray was a “powerful analgesic that is also effective in reducing emotional pain and negative affect,” and told the other half it was just something to help improve fMRI brain scan imaging that otherwise had no effects. In both groups, the spray was simply saline.
The researchers measured responses in different areas of the brain and found that the placebo group showed both a reduction in physical and social pain. The control group did not exhibit a change. This has promising implications for people who are caught in the hell of heartache. In a press release for this study, Tor Wager, one of the lead authors, announced the benefits and power of perception on your emotional state. “Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact,” Wager said. “In some cases, the actual chemical in the drug may matter less than we once thought.”
I used to feel so bad for myself because of bad and stupid relationship drama, and I never know how to cope. At various points in my life, I have tried losing myself by watching all nine seasons of Dynasty on bootleg DVDs, furnishing my apartment with Lestat-style gilded mirrors, and wearing big sunglasses. However, despite my attempts to treat my broken heart, I continued to cry uncontrollably on various bathroom floors anyway.
The study has promising implications for others trapped in such a distressing state: Although there may be no magical cure for the pain of a break-up, simply having positive expectations could help you to get over your sorry heart.