You might think that physical pain and emotional pain are two totally different things. One requires ice. The other, ice cream. Not so fast. Turns out, the crushing feeling when your girlfriend dumps you and the bark your fist feels after you subsequently put it through the wall are a lot more similar than we originally may have thought.
“What we’re finding is terms like ’emotional pain’ and ‘hurt feelings’ are more than just metaphors,” said anesthesiologist Dr. Eugene Lipov. “Emotional pain is so similar to physical pain it can be helped by many of the same treatments.”
Wait, is he saying, like, Tylenol can help numb heartache?
For a wild claim like that, let’s turn to science. Social psychologist Dr. Nathan DeWall gave 1,000 mg of acetaminophen (one dose of Extra Strength Tylenol) to half of the participants in a study. The others were given a placebo. After three weeks, the Tylenol group reported less hurt feelings in their day-to-day-lives. The control group reported no change in feelings. Ultimately, the Tylenol-takers experienced fewer feelings of rejection, while the placebo-takers probably felt like someone’s trash, a McDonald’s bag thrown out of a car window just to litter the road.
In a 2003 neuroimaging study, participants went in for an MRI while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. The same areas of the brain that register physical pain were registering as participants experienced feelings of exclusion and distress. The results showed that Tylenol reduced reactivity in regions linked to aggression.
Clearly, our brains are wired in such a way that emotional pain deals our minds the same punch as physical pain. Could Tylenol mend a broken heart? Could it take away the pain of heartache just as easily as it can take away the pain of a backache?
How about anxiety?
Forget “Batman vs. Superman” – not only can Tylenol numb our feelings of social rejection, limit aggression, and very possibly lessen the pain of heartbreak, it can even ease anxiety and existential worry. Another study from the University of British Columbia found that acetaminophen has an effect on unpleasant experiences, like existential dread.
During the study, participants took either acetaminophen or a placebo while being asked to complete tasks that generally cause anxiety. Such anxiety-inducing tasks included watching a surreal David Lynch video, writing about death, or giving hypothetical fines to prostitutes and public rioters. Wait, what? I would have totally been a lab rat for this study.
Anyways, the researchers found that the people who took Tylenol were less strict when judging the acts of criminals. If you ever end up on trial, make sure everybody in the jury has taken an analgesic. The Tylenol group was also better able to cope with “worrisome ideas,” i.e. death, Lynchian videos. The revival season of “Twin Peaks” is due out in 2017, and you’ll know just how to best enjoy it.
At what price?
The problem with Tylenol being used to treat these negative emotions is that it inevitably also affects the positive end of the spectrum. A trio of researchers from the Ohio State University conducted two studies in which they found that acetaminophen dulls both positive and negative emotions. Again, doctors worked with a group that received acetaminophen and a group that was given a placebo.
The researchers showed the college students – 167 volunteers – around 40 images that ranged from “extremely unpleasant” – malnourished children and war-torn countries – to “extremely pleasant” – kittens, money, people in love! It turns out the Tylenol group felt less intensely. They still felt happy and sad, but about 10 to 20 percent less than the placebo group. “It doesn’t turn them into zombies,” Dr. Baldwin Way affirmed. “It doesn’t turn them into robots.”
Where do we go from here?
Reaching the end of the Tylenol rainbow, we’ve learned some pretty interesting things, but here’s the big one: Tylenol should not be taken every day. Overuse can damage the liver and lead to rebound headaches. And if you truly are experiencing bad thoughts on a regular basis, consider seeing a doctor or psychiatrist. And lastly, feeling things – even bad things – is still pretty remarkable. Experiencing rejection, heartbreak, anxiety or angst is part of being alive, and they make things like winning championships, getting promotions, and triumphing over villainy that much tastier.