Tylenol May Actually Ease Your Heartache

When you've got physical pain, like a headache or a pulled muscle, you probably reach for the Tylenol. But what you may not realize is that Tylenol can also have an effect on emotional pain, like rejection or hurt feelings. In the past decade or so, mounting evidence has pointed toward the unexpected fact that what acetaminophen does for headache, it may also do for heartache.

Take Two and Don't Call Him in the Morning

In 2010, psychologists Naomi Eisenberger and Nathan DeWall published a study in the journal Psychological Science that tested an intriguing theory: that people who took acetaminophen would experience fewer negative emotions than people who took a placebo. In two experiments, participants — half of whom took the equivalent of two extra-strength Tylenol twice a day, the other half of whom took a placebo — reported on how they were feeling over several weeks. In the first experiment, they reported on their levels of hurt feelings each day; in the second, they sat in fMRI brain scanners while they played a virtual ball-tossing game in which two other players (who they didn't know were computer programs) rejected them by refusing to throw the ball.

As the researchers suspected, the participants who took the Tylenol experienced fewer hurt feelings and had less activity in the regions of the brain associated with social pain and rejection. As NPR puts it, "Not only did the acetaminophen appear to be deflecting social anxieties, but it also seemed to be dimming activity in the insula, a region of the brain involved in processing emotional pain."

Other studies have found that people with damage to their insula experience both dulled negative and positive emotions, so in 2015, psychologist Baldwin Way and his team put acetaminophen to that test. They gave half of their 80 participants Tylenol, then asked them to rate a series of sad and happy pictures on how pleasant or depressing they found each one. Sure enough, those on Tylenol rated the pictures as less negative, less positive, and less emotionally arousing overall than those on placebo. Another study in 2016 even found that acetaminophen reduces people's ability to spot errors.

The Caveat

Before you go reaching for the Tylenol after a breakup, you should know that doctors don't recommend using it to control your emotions. Taking too much acetaminophen can damage your liver. How much is too much? According to Harvard Medical School, it's safest to avoid exceeding 3,000 milligrams a day. That's from all sources — not just pills, but cold medicine and anything else that might contain the drug as an extra ingredient. Easing emotional pain is a surprising effect of Tylenol, but there are plenty of other ways to do the same thing — talking to a friend or therapist, for example — that don't carry the same risks.

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Learn more about what you feel in "How Emotions Are Made" by Lisa Feldman Barrett. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 8, 2017

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