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.