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Over-the-counter painkiller could alleviate emotional pain – but should you use it?

Nothing quite hurts like a broken heart. But it turns out something could help: over-the-counter pain medication. On Tuesday, Forbes reported on a new study showing that taking painkillers can reduce the severity of emotional pain caused by rejection. This adds to a body of literature showing that acetaminophen (paracetamol in the UK), dampens emotional pain better than taking nothing at all.

Researchers at UCLA followed 42 participants over a three-week period, who took either a placebo, no treatment or paracetamol twice a day and answered a questionnaire about their feelings. The results showed that “highly forgiving” individuals saw an 18.5% reduction in “social pain” over three weeks if they were taking acetaminophen – which is sold as Tylenol.

There are holes in this study. First of all, not everyone can be highly forgiving. Second, the researchers note themselves that the sample size is tiny; and third, it is possible that the participants were reporting back on different types of social pain – as researchers did not ask what they were feeling down about.

But it does add to a body of research that shows that acetaminophen dulls emotional pain – potentially because similar brain circuitry is engaged when we feel physical pain as when we feel emotional pain. Which leads to the question – if you can use pain medication to deal with emotional pain, does it follow that you should?

Silvia Dutchevic, a therapist from New York, warns against it: “Let’s say you have a break-up and you have a broken heart, I think you should be sad! That’s human!” she says.

But what if you get your heart broken on the same day as an exam? Is it taking a painkiller for heartache really that different from taking it for a headache?

Dutchevic says that such scenarios might be a good example of when it actually makes sense to take a painkiller to dull pain. But, she warns, you have to be honest with yourself. “It’s over-the-counter so people can access it whenever. Which means they really need to ask – is it just going to be one day? Or is it something you are going to start doing every week? We shouldn’t forget that an opioid epidemic started in the US with people looking for a quick fix.”

She also points to a common double-standard that people have around physical versus emotional pain. If you were taking painkillers for a headache for three days we might think that’s OK, but most of us would go to the doctor if we were still doing it a week later. Why not the same for emotional pain? “There is a lot of stigma around mental health that tells us we shouldn’t get help – but why not?” she says.

For Dutchevic, human pain is part of the healing process. Importantly, when we numb pain, we numb our chances of healing. “Let’s say it’s a break-up. You take a pill, now you feel better and guess what? You’re gonna repeat the same thing. You miss the opportunity to really learn what a healthy relationship should look like,” she says.

Instead of reaching for a pill, we should remember that pain is sometimes necessary to instigate change, she says. “Pain reminds us of things we need to work on. It drives us to change ourselves and the world.”

So what to do when you next have a broken heart? Dutchevic recommends talking – and not necessarily with a professional. In fact, Dutchevic says that anyone – friends, a religious leader, your local bartender – are good options when trying to work through emotional pain.

There is just one key ingredient: introspection. “It’s within human relationships that you get to work out some of your issues. But that is not gonna happen with a pill,” she says.