I believe in living a healthy lifestyle, so I exercise regularly, eat organic as much as possible, and generally stay away from processed foods. I’m the type of person who will try every integrative medicine alternative before taking medication. It’s not that I’m against medication—everything has its purpose and is useful when needed.
You can imagine my surprise when I came upon a new study that shows acetaminophen (the generic name for Tylenol) may dull more than just pain—it may also dull our emotions, both positive and negative. I always thought Tylenol was the “safer” pain reliever compared to ibuprofen (the generic name for Advil), but I never considered that moving away from pain might also distance me from pleasure.
The study, published in Psychological Science, is titled “Over-the-Counter Relief From Pains and Pleasures Alike: Acetaminophen Blunts Evaluation Sensitivity to Both Negative and Positive Stimuli.”1 One hour after taking 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen or a placebo, participants were asked to look at a set of images. They indicated their emotional response to each image using these categories: extremely unpleasant, moderately unpleasant, neutral, moderately pleasant, and extremely pleasant.
Head researchers Geoffrey Durso, Andrew Luttrell, and Baldwin Way found that people who had taken acetaminophen were less likely to choose the categories “extremely pleasant” and “extremely unpleasant” than the participants who had not taken acetaminophen.
When we feel pain, our natural instinct is to do something to make it stop quickly. If we are injured, we try not to use the part of our body that hurts. If we’re upset with a friend, we may tell ourselves to “get over it” as soon as we can. On the surface, it might seem like we’re taking the moral high road, but when we look closer we may realize we’re trying to avoid something that hurts on a deeper level.
Trying to ignore these emotions will only lead to more issues. Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to avoid feeling something uncomfortable while others act out in anger or in other ways. Instead of running from our pain, we actually need to feel it as fully as we can. Ironically, when we embrace how bad we feel, and dig in to understand it, the negative feelings will often dissipate more quickly than if we had kept trying to hold them at bay.
I’m not suggesting that anyone stop taking Tylenol or any other medication, especially if a physician prescribes it. But I think it’s important to understand all the effects that a given medication—even one as ubiquitous as Tylenol—may be having on our bodies and brains.
My advice is to take only what you need and no more. If things aren’t that bad, don’t miss out on feeling as good as you can! Instead, turn to a guided meditation designed for pain management or to a close friend, family member, or professional for help. Meditation helps you stay calm in the eye of the storm and feel more resilient in times of change, and sometimes getting the support you need is enough.
1. Geoffrey Durso, Andrew Luttrell, and Baldwin Way, “Over-the-Counter Relief From Pains and Pleasures Alike: Acetaminophen Blunts Evaluation Sensitivity to Both Negative and Positive Stimuli.” Psychological Science. April 10, 2015, pii: 0956797615570366