This time of year can be incredibly difficult for many people. And adding something like a breakup into an already emotional time can be that much more devastating. But, there’s hope: a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that the secret to feeling better is by simply doing something.


“Psychologists from the University of Colorado Boulder recruited 40 volunteers who had been broken up within the past six months and asked them each to bring two photos to a brain-imaging lab: one of their ex, and one of a platonic friend. Everyone was given a functional MRI while being shown one photo after the other.

Between photos, researchers applied heat applied to everyone’s arm with a temperature-controlled device to stimulate mild-to-moderate pain. Throughout the scan, they were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of 1 to 5.

Similar brain regions were activated when people felt the painful heat and saw photos of their exes—validating the idea of emotional pain.”1

If you’ve ever wondered whether or not emotional pain had a measurable effect on chemicals in the brain, this should put those questions to bed.

But what was even more exciting was what researchers found next:

“…people in the study were given a nasal spray. Half were told it was a ‘powerful analgesic effective in reducing emotional pain,’ while the other half were told the truth—that it was a simple saline spray.

In subsequent MRI scans, those who thought they’d inhaled a pain-relief spray reported less physical and emotional pain during the experiments. THeir brains also responded differently when shown photos of their exes: activity increased sharply in brain regions involved in controlling emotion, and decreased in areas associated with rejection.  

Brain activity also increased in a region called the periaqueductal gray, or PAG, which helps control painkilling and mood-boosting neurochemicals like opioids and dopamine.”2


This basically means that people, to some extent, can decide to get over heartache because our beliefs or self-talk can “influence our brain function and physiology as well as our feelings and decisions,” says co-author Tor Wager, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Boulder.3

Now, no one is suggesting we ignore our feelings. However, believing we aren’t capable of moving on only harms us. In fact, the pain of heartbreak has been associated with a “20-fold higher risk of developing depression in the coming year.”4 No, the study is suggesting is that we do something. Hang out with friends and family and believe it’s going to be ok. Do something for someone else and know you are going to be ok. Ask for help. Keep a journal. Talk about your feelings. But do it all knowing, believing, that you will be okay.


The last thing you should do is use “reason and evidence” to challenge whatever negative feelings you might have. The truth is always a better antidote than your worst fears.

Sources and References

  1. Time, April 26, 2017.
  2. Time, April 26, 2017.
  3. Time, April 26, 2017.
  4. Time, April 26, 2017.