A breakup can be one of the most emotionally exhausting things you can ever go through in life. But a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found you can actually trick your brain into thinking you're over a breakup to lessen the pain. "It's the whole fake it till you make it premise," NYC-based individual and couples therapist, Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, tells Bustle. "If you are able to continue with life as if everything's OK, eventually you start believing it."
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder conducted a study of 40 people who went through an "unwanted romantic breakup" within the past six months. Participants were told to bring photos of their ex and friend of the same gender to the lab.
Once in the lab, participants were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and were then shown pictures of their exes. They were then asked to rehash the breakup. Afterwards, they were shown images of their friend while being hit with a hot stimulus on their arm in order to make them feel physical pain. Researchers alternated between the stimuli, participants rated how they felt each time, and the fMRI machine recorded brain activity. Here's what the study found:
The Pain Is Real
Similar (not identical) regions in the brain light up when someone experiences physical and emotional pain. So as Tor Wager, senior author and a professor of psychology and neurosicence told the CU Boulder Today, "Know that your pain is real— neurochemically real." Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
But A Placebo Can Help
Here's where it gets interesting. After the initial cycle, participants were then taken out of the fMRI machines and given a nasal spray. Half of them (the placebo group) were told it was a "powerful analgesic, effective in reducing emotional pain." The other half were told it was a basic saline solution. They were then brought back into the fMRI machine and repeated the same cycle of being shown photos of their ex while experiencing emotional pain and photos of their friend while experiencing physical pain.
This time, researchers found that the placebo group felt much better emotionally, felt less pain physically, and their brain responded much differently when they were shown pictures of their ex. For instance, activity in areas of the brain associated with controlling emotions increased while areas associated with rejection decreased. Those in the placebo group showed an increase in activity in the periaqueductal gray, which is an area of gray matter in the midbrain that plays a role in controlling pain signals in the brain as well as feel-good transmitters like dopamine.
What This Means For The Brokenhearted
Since people in the placebo group believed they were given something to help ease the pain, researchers concluded that just the very fact that you're doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact in helping you recover from a breakup.
Researchers also noted the power of expectation. If you expect something to turn out a certain way, the reality is likely to follow suit. So repeating those positive mantras and affirmations can really help you out. And that's not just some Law of Attraction type of thing for those of you who don't believe that works. This is based on science. "I give my clients with low self-esteem an exercise in which they tell themselves they are worthy of love and happiness every morning in the mirror," Hershenson says. "At first, they don't believe it. But through replaying this mantra, eventually it all sinks in."
Try These Breakup Recovery Hacks To Help You Start Believing
I know how difficult it can be to assure yourself that everything is going to be OK when you're fresh from a breakup. So according to Hershenson, here are a few good ways to start:
- Make a daily gratitude list before bed. Write down 10 or so things you're grateful for. It will help you see everything from a glass half-full perspective.
- Read affirmations daily. Start your day with some kind of positive affirmation. You might find that your positivity carries on throughout the rest of the day.
- Have a daily routine practicing self-care. That can mean anything from yoga to taking a walk outside or even just taking 10 minutes out of your day to meditate on your thoughts. Doing something just for yourself every day is crucial to controlling mental stress.
- Practice acceptance. Make a list of what you can control regarding the breakup (i.e. taking care of yourself) and what you can't control (i.e. your ex's behavior). Focus on what you can control to make change and accept what you can't control to let go.
- Reach out for help. Don't feel like you have to cope with a breakup alone. Go to a friend, a family member or anyone you trust. Let them know how you're doing and how they can help.
- Write out the traits you don't like about your ex. Carry that list with you and look at it every time you feel upset or have an urge to call your ex. It's a good reminder of why you don't really need them in your life.
"I do think it's important to give yourself time to heal and cry if you need to," she says. "But if you can continue going out with friends, showing up for work, and almost make it seem as if you're OK with the breakup, you may end up healing faster."
So be strong, carry on with your life, and tell yourself that you're OK. And if all else fails, you can always fake it till you make it.