Tylenol May Help to Reduce the Pain of Hurt Feelings

woman pouring Tylenol into hand
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You have probably heard the saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Scientific evidence demonstrates that this statement that "names will never hurt" is simply not true. Insults and social rejection do hurt, in the same way that a broken bone might. 

How the brain registers social pain

Thanks to the technology of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and studies of animal lesions, researchers have found that the same part of our brain registers social pain that registers physical pain, namely the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

This may explain why your heart literally feels pain after a break-up, or why you feel like you were hit by a truck after the loss of a loved one. Similarly, this finding may also help to explain why someone may turn to self-harming practices such as cutting to mitigate social and emotional distress. Our physical and emotional systems are inseparably intertwined.

Why social pain hurts 

Even though many of us in the States are brought up with values of autonomy and individuality, we are ultimately social beings. The pain associated with rejection is a signal to us that we may be in danger. Neural pathways exist to tell us that we are in trouble when we are rejected from the tribe so that we may fix this problem and survive. Our species has evolved to be cooperative. Even though technological advances of modern times have afforded us the ability to survive in isolation, the healthiest of us have strong social connections and good relationships.

 

Can Tylenol help with the pain of rejection?

If physical and social pain register in the same part of the brain, it makes sense to wonder whether a typical pain reliever such as Tylenol might be able to help make feelings of rejection more tolerable. Psychologists Naomi Eisenberger, C. Nathan DeWall and their colleagues asked that very question and found that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, can actually reduce the feeling of social pain.

To determine whether Tylenol could help with social pain, Eisenberger, DeWall and their colleagues had volunteers take a Tylenol once a day for three weeks. These volunteers were then compared with volunteers who were given a placebo daily for three weeks. Those who took the Tylenol reported less hurt feelings than those in the placebo group. Further, when placed in a situation which involved social exclusion, an fMRI demonstrated that those who had taken the Tylenol demonstrated less activity in the area of the brain that registered pain than those in the placebo group.

The Takeaway

This research should not encourage everyone to start self medicating with Tylenol, but demonstrates how connected our social, emotional and physical systems really are. If anything, it helps shed light on the importance of social connection and support for our well being and survival.

Sources

Eisenberger, N. I. and Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for social and physical pain. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8 (7), 294-300.

DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D. R., Stillman, T. F., Tice, D. M. and Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 21(7), 931-937. 

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