The same words are often used to describe both physical and emotional pain. We have heartaches, broken spirits and hurt feeling just the same as headaches, broken bones and hurt bodies. We’ve had medications available over the counter for physical pain for a long time, but not for emotional pain. However, a research from C. Nathan Dewall from the Department of Psychology at Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences has found evidence suggesting that Paracetamol (Tylenol) may be able to take the edge of social and emotional pain as well.
“The idea—that a drug designed to alleviate physical pain should reduce the pain of social rejection—seemed simple and straightforward based on what we know about neural overlap between social and physical pain systems. To my surprise, I couldn’t find anyone who had ever tested this idea,” DeWall said.
A study published in the journal Psychological Science confirms DeWall’s theory that the two pain systems overlap and depend on many of the same mechanisms.
DeWall and his team conducted two separate experiments to examine this connection. In one experiment, 62 healthy participants were given 1,000 mg of either paracetamol or placebo each day. In the evenings, they reported their level of social pain on a “Hurt Feelings Scale”, an assessment tool commonly used by psychologists as a measure of social pain. In those taking the Paracetamol, hurt feelings decreased over time, and no change was seen in those taking the placebo. DeWall was thrilled with the results of the first experiment and set out to figure out the neural mechanisms that would explain them.
The second experiment was conducted on 25 healthy participants who took 2,000 mg of either paracetamol or placebo each day. After three weeks, participants played a computer game created to trigger feelings of social rejection. The team monitored the brains of the participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Those taking paracetamol showed reduced neural reactions in the areas of the brain associated with the pain of social rejection as well as physical pain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula). Put another way, the brains of the participants lit up when they experienced rejection, but the group that had the placebo showed significantly greater responses than those on Paracetamol.
The paper detailing the study explains: “…findings suggest that at least temporary mitigation of social pain-related distress may be achieved by means of an over-the-counter painkiller that is normally used for physical aches and pains. Furthermore, many studies have shown that being rejected can trigger aggressive and antisocial behavior, which could lead to further complications in social life… .If acetaminophen reduces the distress of rejection, the antisocial behavioral consequences of rejection may be reduced as well.”
Researchers are quick to point out that they are not suggesting that people should start using paracetamol for emotional pain or anxiety. Further research needs to be conducted to verify these findings. Researchers also warn that excessive use of paracetamol has been linked to liver damage and urge everyone to consult a doctor before using any medication off-label.
“This research has the potential to change how scientists and laypersons understand physical and social pain. Social pain, such as chronic loneliness, damages health as much as smoking and obesity. We hope our findings can pave the way for interventions designed to reduce the pain of social rejection,” DeWall said.