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After a Breakup, Doing Literally Anything Is Better Than Doing Nothing

I'm a wife, mother, secondary school counselor, and writer. Combining my 20+ years in the health/wellness and counseling fields, I have found my passion in inspiring other women to be the best version of themselves. I have a B.S. in Exe...

Research shows keeping busy can have a placebo effect on healing broken hearts

Most of us can attest to the fact that when you're in the middle of breakup hell, it usually feels like that emotional pain is never going to end. And while we don't have a magic fix for that pain, we do have a little light at the end of the tunnel. According to a new study, just believing you're doing something to help yourself get over your ex can influence brain regions associated with emotional regulation and lessen the sting.

Basically, doing something is better than doing nothing after a breakup. At least that’s what the researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered when they measured the neurological and behavioral 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 the study’s lead author, Dr. Leonie Koban.

At a brain-imaging lab, researchers worked with 40 volunteers, all of whom had been ditched in the past six months. First, participants looked at photos of their ex and talked about the breakup while being measured by a fancy functional magnetic-resonance machine. Then, they looked at photos of a platonic friend while being subjected to a hot stimulus on their forearm (ouch!). What the scientists discovered is that similar brain regions lit up during physical and emotional pain while looking at both images.

More: Think You'd Be Happier With Someone Younger? Think Again

OK, that makes sense — the pain is neuro-chemically real, so now what? Well, the researchers gave the volunteers a nasal spray. Half were told it was a “powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain,” while the other half were told it did nothing. Then they were sent back into the machine and shown the same two photos. The researchers found that the placebo group's brains responded differently to the photos they were shown, and most important, they felt less physical and emotional pain. Whoa.

What gives? Tor Wager, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, said that, “Just the fact that you're doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact.”

So, the next time you find yourself alone and pining for an ex, get up and do something you’re convinced will help you feel better, whether it's a bubble bath, a Netflix binge or a sweat-session at the gym. Because when it comes right down to it, “Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better,” said Koban.

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