How does one deal with the pain arising from the dread of an anticipated experience, such as social rejection or a big event? The answer, researchers say, may lie in Tylenol. Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, can reduce emotional distress in the same way it provides relief from physical pain.
Anticipating the pain of fearful times ahead may be worse than suffering pain from the actual event. It is not uncommon for many individuals to spend days, if not weeks, agonizing over an upcoming matter, such as a visit to the dentist or a public speaking engagement. Past research shows that when people are given two choices – to postpone the pain from an impending situation or suffer the pain right away and be done with it – most prefer the latter.
Previous studies also show that acetaminophen reduces neural responses in regions of the brain which control distress triggered by social anxiety, such as being ostracized, intimidated or rejected. To establish that Tylenol can also reduce anticipatory distress, a 2013 study asked participants to write about situations related to their death. Individuals who had taken acetaminophen had less adverse views regarding their death than those who had been given a placebo. A 2014 study found that acetaminophen also reduces the pain of decision-making.
Limited clarity on how Tylenol works in reducing both physical and emotional pain
While past research shows that acetaminophen may be beneficial in reducing emotional pain, there is no consensus within the scientific community on how this happens. Baldwin M. Way, assistant professor in the department of psychology and Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University, suspects that it involves the insula, a region of the brain that controls emotions. Physical injury, for example, includes an emotional element and the latter is controlled by the insula.
According to Way, acetaminophen probably dulls the emotional element of pain. Older studies have found that people with an impairment of the insula do not have strong reactions to either positive or negative images shown to them. Way and his co-researchers undertook a study in 2015 to examine acetaminophen’s effect on the insula. It was found that participants who were given acetaminophen had a less negative reaction to unpleasant images and a less positive reaction to pleasing images, compared to participants who were given a placebo. Participants had similar reactions when they were asked to rate the emotional power of each image.
Nathan DeWall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, finds the results of Way’s study surprising. DeWall, who was not associated with the study, adds that acetaminophen is typically thought of as providing relief from painful experiences. Instead, Way’s study suggests that the drug may numb all emotions thereby, indicating a much wider impact. Way admits that it is unclear how acetaminophen works in reducing physical and emotional pain. He and his colleagues are undertaking further research to establish the therapeutic benefits of acetaminophen.
Doctors and psychotherapists advise caution in using Tylenol regularly
Lewis Nelson, a medical toxicologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, advises people against taking Tylenol every time they are battling frayed nerves. According to him, it is not a drug which warrants excessive use. At times, physical or emotional pain may be indicators of a larger issue. Dealing with emotional pain using better means can help in becoming psychologically stronger. Using drugs every time to suppress the pain is not good for overall health.
Some doctors may prescribe acetaminophen as a short-term remedy to overcome distress, given that over 18 percent of adults in the United States suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder every year. Although more research is needed to fully evaluate the effect of acetaminophen, preliminary indications are that it will find a much wider application in future research.
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