Hurt Feelings? Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

By Caitlin Kennedy, Ph.D.
September 2013

Have you ever said someone “hurt my feelings” or “broke my heart”? Could physical pain and emotional pain be so similar that they could be helped with the same treatment?

Studies suggest that they can. Acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) is a popular over-the-counter medication for pain relief and fever. In a 2010 study by C. Nathan DeWall (University of Kentucky) and his colleagues, men and women took acetaminophen or a placebo (sugar pill) daily for three weeks. Every day they responded to questionnaires on their hurt feelings from that day. Results showed that those who took acetaminophen reported decreases in hurt feelings over the three-week period, but those who took the placebo pill did not show a decrease in hurt feelings.1

Another study found an effect of just one dose of acetaminophen on social stress and ways of dealing with the stress. Daniel Randles and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia gave men and women either acetaminophen or a placebo. The men and women were then exposed to an unsettling situation (for example, writing about what will happen to their bodies when they die) or a situation that was not unsettling (a control condition). The researchers knew from previous research that the unsettling experience would affect their behavior. However, in this study the men and women who had taken acetaminophen were less likely to seem affected by the unsettling experience than those who took the placebo.2

Why does acetaminophen, a medication designed to help with physical pain, also help social stress or emotional pain? Research has found that emotional pain activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain.3 These areas of the brain are less activated by emotional issues when individuals take acetaminophen beforehand.1

Someone hurt my feelings, and chocolate isn’t helping. Can I take acetaminophen?Yes, you can take acetaminophen to try to reduce the hurt of emotional pain or social stress. However, be sure to only take the amount that is recommended for physical pain. If you are an adult and weigh over 100 pounds, the recommended amount of acetaminophen is 1000 milligrams every six hours (2 extra strength Tylenol) or 650 milligrams every four hours (2 regular strength Tylenol). Never take more than 3000 milligrams per day, and do not take if you are drinking alcoholic beverages. Be sure to read the bottle to find out the dose in each pill, and to find out the right dose for a child or adult under 100 lbs.4 If acetaminophen does not provide enough relief from emotional pain at the regular dose, please see a counselor for assistance.

  1. DeWall DN, MacDonald G, Webster GD, Masten CL, Baumeister RF, Powell C, Combs D, Shurtz DR, Stillman TF, Tice DM, & Eisenberger NI. Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science 2010: 21(7); 931-937. doi: 10.1177/0956797610374741  
  2. Randles D, Heine SJ, Santos N. The common pain of surrealism and death: Acetaminophen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats. Psychological Science 2013: 24(6); 966-973. doi: 10.1177/0956797612464786  
  3. Eisenberger N, Broken hearts and broken bones: A neural perspective on the similarities between social and physical pain. Psychological Science 2012: 21(1), 42-47. doi: 10.1177/0963721411429455  
  4. Acetaminophen Dosage. Drugs.com. Accessed August 29, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.drugs.com/dosage/acetaminophen.html#Usual_Adult_Dose_for_Pain