One gram paracetamol reduces your hurt feelings
Painkillers like paracetamol not only reduce pain that is physical in origin, like a splitting headache after an evening out or painful fingers after an argument between a dumbbell, the dumbbell rack and your left hand. Paracetamol also reduces mental pain that occurs when you feel misunderstood, ignored or that people are avoiding you. Psychologists at the University of Kentucky in the US made this discovery.
Paracetamol & psychological pain
People need to belong to a group. Biologists believe that evolution programmed us in this way because in prehistoric times, we died if we were excluded from the group we belonged to.
That's why it hurts when the group we belong to rejects us. Like when friends indicate that you are no longer welcome, colleagues don't take you seriously, your employer shows you the door, or your relationship is on the rocks.
Might the same drugs we use to deaden physical pain stimuli also help reduce psychological pain? The psychologists at Kentucky University wondered about this – and decided to perform an experiment to test their idea. The researchers gave thirty students a daily 1000 mg paracetamol [Acetaminophen]] – 500 mg in the morning and 500 mg in the evening – every day for three weeks. An equal number of students were given a placebo.
Every evening the students filled in a questionnaire in which they had to indicate the extent to which their feelings had been hurt that day. The hurt feelings of the paracetamol takers decreased by a significant amount during the course of the experiment.
In another experiment the researchers gave fifteen students a daily 2000 mg paracetamol for a period of three weeks, and an equal number of students a placebo. At the end of the period they got the students to play a digital team game, in which the students' were initially encouraged, but then were ignored.
The researchers made brain scans of the students while they were playing, and measured the activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex [dACC] and the anterior insula. These are areas that are activated when physical pain is experienced.
The figure below shows the difference between the activity in the two pain areas during the period that the subjects were encouraged to play and during the period that they were ignored. Activity during the period of exclusion decreased among the paracetamol takers; it increased in the placebo users.
"The current investigation provides novel insight into the close relationship between social and physical pain, by exploring one surprising consequence of the hypothesis that physical and social pain rely on shared neurobiological substrates", the psychologists conclude. "We have shown for the first time that acetaminophen, an over-the-counter medication commonly used to reduce physical pain, also reduces the pain of social rejection, at both neural and behavioral levels."
Psychol Sci. 2010 Jul;21(7):931-7.
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