Going Through a Breakup? The Placebo Effect Might Ease Your Pain



A relationship breakup can cause true emotional pain, and can have negative implications for both mental and physical health. A new study, however, suggests that we can mend a broken heart simply by believing that we are doing something to help.

Many of us have experienced the breakdown of a romantic relationship. Whether it was with your high school sweetheart or your spouse of 25 years, there is no denying the emotional pain that comes with a breakup.

“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,” says first study author Leonie Koban, a postdoctoral research associate for the University of Colorado Boulder (UC Boulder).

Koban notes that the pain of a relationship breakup can increase the risk of developing depression by as much as 20 times in the subsequent 12 months.

However, she and her colleagues suggest that there might be a simple way to reduce the intensity of such pain – just believe that you are doing something to make yourself feel better.

Numerous studies have shown that placebos – a pill, shot, or other procedure that has no active therapeutic components – may be beneficial for a wealth of conditions, including chronic pain, migraine, and even Parkinson’s disease. This phenomenon is known as “the placebo effect.”

For their study – recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience – Koban and team set out to investigate the effect of placebos on the emotional pain caused by relationship breakups.

Emotional pain is ‘neurochemically real’

The researchers enrolled 40 adults to the study, all of whom had experienced an “unwanted romantic breakup” in the previous 6 months.

Each participant was shown images of their ex-partner and asked to describe their breakup, in order to trigger emotional pain. They were then shown images of a good friend of the same gender.

In between images, participants were also subject to physical pain in the form of hot stimuli on their left forearm. They were also asked to rate their physical and emotional pain on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very bad and 5 being very good.

Throughout the experiment, subjects underwent functional MRI, which was used to measure their brain activity.

The team found that brain activity in response to emotional and physical pain – although not identical – was very similar.

According to senior author Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder, this finding alone shows that emotional pain is “neurochemically real.”