Aw, Feelings Hurt? Take a Tylenol

Everyone knows that if you sprain your ankle or have a headache, you can take acetaminophen to relieve the pain. After all, it is one of the most popular over-the-counter drugs for physical pain relief. But what if it could help emotional pain too? According to a study published in Psychological Science, scientists have shown that acetaminophen may indeed relieve emotional hurt as well, particularly the pain associated with social rejection.

A research team lead by Dr. C.N. DeWall conducted two experiments to demonstrate this amazing effect. In the first, 62 adult participants took two 500-mg pills every day for three weeks, one in the morning and one at night. Thirty of the individuals took acetaminophen pills and 32 took a placebo. Each night, the participants rated themselves on the Hurt Feelings Scale, wherein they reported how many times and to what extent they experienced social rejection throughout the day. From days nine to 21 of the experiment, the people taking acetaminophen reported significantly fewer instances of hurt feelings compared to the people taking the placebo.

In the second experiment, 25e individuals took two 500-mg pills in the morning and two at night. Ten of the individuals took acetaminophen and 15 took a placebo. After three weeks, the participants reported to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) facility to participate in a social exclusion exercise. While laying in the fMRI machine, the subjects participated in a virtual game of catch with two other human participants, or so they thought. In reality, their playmates were computerized. After one round of the game, the opponents were programmed to stop throwing the ball to the subjects, thus making them feel excluded from the game. The fMRI machine recorded brain images of the subjects and found that those taking acetaminophen showed less brain activity in areas associated with the experience of social rejection.

How is it possible that acetaminophen relieves the pain of having your feelings hurt? It turns out that scientists have long known there is some overlap in how the brain senses both physical injury and social rejection. Both experiences initiate electrical activity in the areas of the brain known as the dorsal anterior singulate cortex and anterior insula. This lead the researchers to suspect that a pain reliever such as acetaminophen, which relieves physical pain by affecting the central nervous system, might by the same mechanism relieve emotional pain. Turns out they were right.

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  • Acetaminophen is extremely toxic to the liver. It is a drug that is taken freely and included in most narcotic pain relievers as an adjunctive form of pain relief. Unfortunately, in those who suffer from chronic pain there is a ‘rebound effect’ that will trigger abnormal pain.. like headaches that are not a usual feature of the patient’s problems.. caused not by the narcotic but by the shorter duration of the acetaminophen’s effect.

    Physicians will sometimes increase pain med dosage while not acknowledging the culprit is not the narcotic, but the acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is also a deadly chemical to keep around pets (cats, dogs), so if you love your animals you are advised to store this stuff well away from where your animals can ever get at it. Pain Specialists will pretty rapidly move a chronic pain sufferer to a medication that does not incorporate acetaminophen ~ because the opiates, while apparently more hazardous, act in ways that are noticeable. Acetaminophen, taken in high dosages over the long term are not safe.

    Essentially, *anything* can become addictive.. and recommending acetaminophen for treating ‘hurt feelings’ is rather irresponsible. Acetaminophen has been used (successfully, in quite a few cases) for suicide.. and people with hurt feelings are often extremely vulnerable and likely to act in ways that are extreme. Those who think Tylenol is safe and innocuous need to do the research. I’m willing to bet that these researchers will in years to come recant these statements, just as statements made about ‘drinking a glass of wine or two’ being healthy are now once again being recanted, due to proof of increased risk of breast cancer.

    Side note: Interesting that a pricey vitamin supplement named ‘Resveratrol ‘ is now being sold OTC and some is a concentrated derivative of red wine grapes (read your labels carefully, ladies). It is being touted as an antioxidant, but in fact has only been proven to lower blood sugar in humans… and there are many less-expensive and well-documented ways of achieving the same effect without potential carcinogens: Fenugreek and cinnamon being two of the more popular remedies.

    Emotional pain can be ameliorated by changing the situation one is in or “changing the script” one is running in their mind (Neuro-Linguistic Programming being one of the most powerful methods for changing a negative script to a positive one). A cup of Chamomile tea or (stronger) Kava Kava is likely to be a better choice to swallow than Acetominophen.

  • I strongly agree.

    I’ve seen too many acetaminophen intoxications. People will also tend to mix it with other substances. When mixed with St John’s wort for example, enzyme induction will lead to faster liver damage even in lower dosage.

    Also to claim that acetaminophen works by “by affecting the central nervous system” is wrong. Instead, the magic is done peripherally by inhibiting the cyclooxygenase enzymes.

  • Yes, acetaminophen is bad news on a regular basis. But the real point of this research is that there is a way to directly alleviate the suffering of people with mental health disorders. Now we have an idea of which directions to search for optimal treatment.

    This is big news and should not be minimized. Psychiatrists are among the few remaining doctors who “operate” without anesthetic. Think about the possibility of doing therapy (like surgery) without having to fight pain reactions or gauge how much exhaustion the pain is causing. Before ether, surgery was pretty much limited to amputations and cauterizing wounds-basically stuff that can be done quickly and without subtlety. Now we can entirely replace internal organs.

    Given how much mental health care costs the health care system and the people involved, how can we not sheer this result?

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