Why a Tylenol Can Help Ease Hurt Feelings

“How to build a lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to build a happy life.


Llately my back was injured. I did something weird at the gym that gave me a dull ache, and now I’m resting. I appreciate the feedback the pain provides, as I wish I could walk upright for a few more decades and don’t want to risk a more permanent injury. Still, I don’t like it, so I take acetaminophen to ease my discomfort.

Back pain is normal, but another type of injury is even more typical in my life, and probably in yours as well: mental suffering. I’m not talking about clinical depression or anxiety, which require professional intervention, but rather the routine, the chronic routine of conflict, dissatisfaction and sadness, which is often a dull ache in the background Nowadays. Many philosophers have considered this discomfort to be our natural state. In his Thoughts, Blaise Pascal affirmed that at rest, man “feels his nothingness, his loneliness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness”. That might sound like a bit of a stretch to you, but research shows that people tend to experience negative or mixed emotions nearly half the time.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a handy tool to ease the daily mental pain a bit? Not to become numb to life, just to relax, especially when it interferes with normal life, like you can swallow a Tylenol when your back hurts. Turns out, there are safe and healthy ways to do just that, including taking the same type of painkiller for whatever ails your body and mind. And that’s just the beginning.


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Jhe ancient greek writer Antiphanes believed that “all pain is a disease with many names”. He was right, neurologically speaking. Physical pain activates several parts of the brain, including the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. Neuroscientists have discovered that our thrifty brains piggyback on the experience of emotional pain in the same place. In one example, from 2003, researchers from UCLA and Macquarie University in Sydney conducted an experiment in which participants’ brains were scanned while they played a virtual ball-tossing game. At one point, they were excluded from the game in a way that mimicked social exclusion. Sure enough, their ACCs became active, just as they would if the participants had experienced physical pain.

Physical pain has two basic parts: the sensory component (the physical sensation) and the affective component (the perception of unpleasantness). Mental pain shares this second component, leading researchers to some interesting findings. For example, in 2005, researchers reported the case of a patient with congenital physical insensitivity to pain who experienced a severe headache for the first time in her life only after the unexpected death of her younger brother. .

If we feel emotional and physical pain at least partially in the same area of ​​the brain, it’s no wonder that the same substances can alleviate them. For example, just as opioids such as morphine and heroin can relieve severe physical pain, they can also lessen the distress people feel from social separation. This is probably why people often report that heroin feels like love and why loneliness can lead to higher levels of opioid abuse, especially among women. Similarly, psychologist C. Nathan DeWall and colleagues have shown that a daily dose of acetaminophen can reduce self-reported feelings of hurt compared to a placebo by decreasing ACC activity. (And unlike opioids, this painkiller isn’t addictive or dangerous in ordinary doses.)

This does not mean that maximum blunting is the right solution. Like physical pain, mental pain has a purpose: it helps us avoid things like social exclusion. DeWall and his colleagues argued that the fear and bitterness we feel when we are excluded are holdovers from an earlier time in human history when being a social outcast could mean not having the protection of a community. , making survival difficult or impossible. Now it can be maladaptive, which makes FOMO feel like a toothache. You can know intellectually that being criticized for your opinions is not like being kicked out of your community and being forced to live alone in the woods. But your ACC doesn’t know the difference, giving you a lot of pain for something you know intellectually enough without consequence.

Oyeah it’s a A helpful warning sign or pure inconvenience, mental pain can hamper our lives. The trick is to make it manageable safely, without erasing it completely, like over-the-counter pain relievers do for everyday aches. Here’s how.

1. Physically feel your mental pain.

Many mental sufferings have bodily manifestations. When I am anxious or stressed, for example, I tend to contract my abdominal muscles; other people breathe shallowly or clench their fists.

Recognizing such physical signs can help you actively deal with the feelings that cause them. Try to pay attention when your body tenses – it’s a signal you need to deal with. Deliberately relax your shoulders and chest and breathe deeply, and you will likely find instant relief. People who are good at recognizing the physical symptoms of emotional problems and coping with them in these simple ways have been shown to have superior emotional regulation.

2. Be spiritual.

A substantial body of evidence suggests that religious and spiritual activity helps relieve pain. Many people with chronic physical pain turn to religious and spiritual practices for coping and relief. Meanwhile, participation in traditional religion can improve the subjective well-being of people experiencing mental pain, such as bereavement. A simple prayer can relieve stress, as can mindfulness meditation. And no surprise at this point: When researchers look at brain regions involved in meditation, they find reductions in pain-related activity in ACC.

The next time you notice a dull ache in your soul, try offering it up in prayer or meditation. Catholics, for example, will mentally join their suffering to that of Christ. Buddhists will use sadness in meditation to compassionately understand the suffering of others. Find your own way, in your own tradition.

3. Don’t suffer on your own.

Connection to others is highly protective against all kinds of pain. Experiments have shown that social support alleviates the physical symptoms of pain; the evidence for emotional pain is even more abundant. In a 2007 study in the journal NeuroImage, the researchers followed people for a period of 10 days and assessed their hormonal responses to social stressors. They found that people with more social support had milder responses to the hormone cortisol in the face of stress. Not surprisingly, they also had lower activity in the ACC.

Having family or friends around you, as long as the relationships are healthy, is protective against the mental pains of life. Cultivating these bonds is like taking a daily vitamin: when you’re particularly vulnerable, the defenses you’ve built will provide relief. And you can always “up the dose” by reaching out to these people for help when your suffering is acute.

4. Take a pill.

If all else fails, or you just need easier relief to get through a tough day, you always have acetaminophen. I wouldn’t recommend this as your first or only line of self-care because it doesn’t address the root of your issues, just certain symptoms. But in a pinch, it can help.

Iin a sense, mental suffering is totally different from its physical counterpart: you can soothe your own pain by soothing that of others. Follow the example of President Abraham Lincoln, who lost one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, in a Civil War battle in Mississippi. In his grief, he reached out to McCullough’s daughter, Fanny, who was inconsolable.

In a letter dated December 23, 1862, he wrote: “It is with deep sorrow that I learn of the death of your good and brave Father; and, above all, that it affects your young heart beyond what is common. He went on to promise her, based on his own life experience, “You are sure to be happy again… The remembrance of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will still be a sweet feeling and sad in your heart, of a purer and purer feeling, a holier kind than you have known before.

The letter was undoubtedly useful to Fanny; I strongly suspect it was therapy for Lincoln as well. Studies have consistently shown that helping others in distress leads to better emotional regulation and reduced symptoms of depression. But you probably don’t need a study to remind you that giving love may actually be the best strategy for reducing pain in this difficult life.

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