Why Emotional Pain Matters

Medical Reviewer

They say what goes around comes around and this is certainly the case for some news reports. My heart sank when I opened the newspaper to find the old chestnut about paracetamol soothing broken hearts was being reported yet again.

For those unfamiliar with the story here's a summary: a few years ago some research was reported to the effect that acetaminophen (paracetamol) could blunt the pain of social rejection in much the same way that it can blunt physical pain. Neurologically, there is a strong overlap in the way the brain responds to both types of pain, and this can be seen using functional magnetic imaging scans. Using various measures alongside experiments that mimic social rejection, investigators announced that significantly less activity could be seen in brain areas associated with social pain after volunteers had consumed paracetamol.

The press recently picked up the story again. In the article I looked at, nearly all of it seemed geared to promoting the idea that paracetamol reduces the pain of social rejection. Only in the very last sentence was some concession made to the alternative perspective, which is there may actually be a value to experiencing the pain of rejection. "It's probably there for a reason," says the researcher.

It seems to me there's a danger that social responsibility can easily slip through the gap between reporting research and media coverage. What is this gap? It's probably between the reporting of research and the pick up by the media. The role of research is to build on previous research and add to the body of knowledge. Whilst the techniques employed are guided ethically, there is no particular emphasis on analysing the social effects of findings, although many authors do at least attempt this. Nobody wants to pull the rug beneath research, but the issue of balance and perspective is absolutely essential when there are implications for physical or emotional health. Equally, a news report that simply trots out the findings without questioning the implications might be accused of sloppy journalism. So yes, the experience of emotional pain is a normal and perfectly natural response to emotional distress and it really is there for a reason.

I'm not against paracetamol per se, but news reports suggesting that paracetamol can be used as a way to relieve psychological symptoms is not only unhelpful it's potentially dangerous. Paracetamol induced liver damage is the most common cause of acute liver failure, so anything that suggests its use beyond a short-term analgesic without strict medical controls, is frankly irresponsible. Where I live (in the UK) concerns over the misuse of paracetamol, intentional or otherwise, resulted in legislation to control the number of drugs that can be bought in a single purchase. Since 1998 this has been no more than one pack of 16 paracetamol tabs or a maximum of 32 from a pharmacist. Of course it isn't difficult to go from shop to shop and buy as many as you wish, but it makes the point that paracetamol isn't something to be taken lightly.

This brings us to emotional pain. Anyone who has experienced emotional pain, and I guess that's most if not all of us, knows it isn't pleasant. It's an appealing notion to have something at hand to blunt the terrible effects of severe emotional pain, and alcohol and drugs have always been used to this effect.

Why, you may ask, are we burdened with such awful emotions? I'm not sure I can fully answer the question, but like physical pain, it's reasonable to assume it is there for a reason. Like physical pain, we learn what is likely to hurt us and we either devise strategies to cope with the pain, or we learn to be cautious and avoid these things. Our personal growth and development hinges on our coping abilities. Unlike physical pain, which probably does diminish with the help of drugs like paracetamol, emotional pain does not. The reality is that we have to find ways to cope with emotional pain that does not include the use of psychoactive drugs which simply dull the pain and avoids what needs to be confronted. If we took a pill for every time we felt a pang of social rejection it would be a very sad day indeed.