Painkillers Might Also Dull Your Emotions

A study shows Tylenol could affect emotional evaluations, but judging the meaning of that finding is tough

pill cabinet
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Headaches, cramps and other painful twinges in your body can be relieved by popping an over-the-counter painkiller, but the aches of the soul are harder to treat. Yet studies show that the acetaminophen (sold as Tylenol) can actually dull emotional pain. However, don’t reach for the glass of water and the pills when you feel down—the painkiller can also dampen your feelings of happiness, reports Isha Aran for Fusion

A study just published in Psychological Science had 82 people look at pictures meant to elicit an emotional response. Half took acetaminophen, and half took a placebo pill. Aran writes:

After waiting an hour for the drug to kick in, the researchers made the participants look at 40 photographs that were meant to spark some kind of emotional response. Some were sad (“crying, malnourished children”) and others were quite joyful (kids playing with kittens!). And of course, there were neutral photos (a cow in a field. Might be the most neutral image out there).

Though, some people do find cows a cause for joy. (Just saying.)

The study participants first rated the photos on a scale from positive to negative and, after a second look, also rated the photos on whether they evoked more or less emotion. The acetaminophen-dosed group tended to mark the photos as more neutral than the group that had a placebo.

Other studies in recent years have noted this phenomenon. A 2009 study showed that Tylenol can blunt the hurt feelings of social rejectionthe hurt caused by teasing, say. A 2011 study suggested that the drug could also lessen anxiety. For that study, the researchers also noted that the exact same neurons fire when you feel emotional or physical pain, reports Psychology Today.

However, like the new study, those two older studies are limited. The 2009 study only looked at 62 volunteers answering a "hurt feeling scale" questionnaire and asked 25 to play a video game intended to create feelings of social rejection. The 2011 study compared MRIs from 40 people. All the studies mimic real-world conditions with visual aides rather than actually put people in a situation they might encounter in life.

The U.K.’s National Health Service wrote an article hoping to correct some misconceptions that may have been generated by coverage of a 2013 study that asked students to contemplate their own death or watch "an unsettling surrealist film by director David Lynch." In this study, acetaminophen again appeared to blunt emotional pain, as measured by the participants tendency to punish wrongdoers less severely. The NHS wrote:

As interesting as this study is, it certainly should not be regarded as a recommendation to take paracetamol on a regular basis in order to cope better with emotional pain. 

In coverage of the 2013 study, James Hamblin writes for the Atlantic:

This all raises more questions than it answers. This study was small. The headlines are grandiose. The way people pass moral judgments is not necessarily indicative of their level of existential anxiety. But acetaminophen indeed appears to be affecting people's perspectives, which further muddies our already complex relationship to the drug.

We still aren’t sure how painkillers like acetaminophen even reduce physical pain. At the least, the new study indicates further caution in interpreting the studies on emotions, because the painkiller may dampen happiness and joy as well. Lead researcher Geoffrey Durso says in a press statement, “This means that using Tylenol or similar products might have broader consequences than previously thought.” 

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