Do you anticipate being snubbed at your in-laws' holiday dinner? Are you pretty sure your spouse will pick up a gift for you from the drugstore on Christmas Eve? Are you starting to take your unsuccessful job hunt personally?
New research may prescribe just the thing for your hurt feelings: the same all-purpose pain reliever you may take for headaches, muscle pain and fever.
A study to be published in the journal Psychological Science set out to explore the link between the way we experience physical pain and how we process the pain of social rejection--a novel line of research that has been picking up steam in the past year or so. The researchers--a far-flung group led by University of Kentucky psychologist C. Nathan DeWall--noted that recent studies have shown lots of overlap in the brain circuits that process physical and social pain. But no study has looked at whether medication that blunts physical pain might do the same for the heartache that comes from the perception that one has been spurned or slighted.
In a pair of experiments using acetaminophen (the active ingredient in over-the-counter pain reliever Tylenol), they found considerable evidence that it does. The first experiment put 62 healthy undergraduates into two groups, and put one on a daily dose of two Tylenol--one each morning and one shortly before going to bed. The other group took a daily dose of placebo. Each evening, participants filled out a quick psychological survey gauging not only their general level of positive emotion for that day, but of "hurt feelings" as well.
Subjects in both groups did not differ measurably in their positive emotions. But from Day 9 and for the 12 days following, the group taking Tylenol reported significantly lower daily levels of hurt feelings than did the group taking placebo.
A second experiment had 25 healthy undergraduates play a virtual "ball-tossing" game designed to induce feelings of social rejection while their brains were being scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Ten of the subjects took two acetaminophen tablets each morning and two at night for three weeks before the ball-tossing fMRI session; 15 subjects took placebo pills for the same period.
The brain images showed that compared with the subjects who had taken the dummy pills, the acetaminophen group responded to the virtual exclusion they experienced with far less activity in the brain regions linked to the processing of physical and emotional pain, and in other areas in which mood and emotions are processed. Curiously, when individuals in each group were asked to rate their feelings in response to the exclusion episode, the two groups reported equal levels of social distress.
"Our findings do not call for widespread use of acetaminophen to cope with all types of personal problems," the group writes in the article outlining the research. But they do provide some "novel insight into the close relationship between social and physical pain." Social pain such as chronic loneliness can be as bad for health as smoking and obesity. And since chronic loneliness is almost as widespread, "we hope our findings can pave the way for interventions designed to reduce the pain of social rejection," said DeWall in a press release.
Just a quick note from your helpful Booster Shots blogger: if you're already medicating your hurt feelings with regular, high doses of alcohol, do NOT start taking nightly doses of acetaminophen: the combination can cause liver damage.
-- Melissa Healy