The Popular Painkiller That Reduces Empathy (And Joy)

The Popular Painkiller That Reduces Empathy (And Joy)

Empathy is the heartbeat of healthy relationships. Without it, there is limited scope for connection and understanding – arguments heat up, intimacy cools down, small issues become big ones, and relationships break. New research has made some startling findings in relation to the popular painkiller that reduces empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person might be feeling or thinking. It involves being able to see things from another person’s point of view, even when it pushes against our own. This means being able to stay curious and open to another person’s experience, while at the same time being able to tap into our own emotional bank to understand and interpret the other person’s experience.

Our own individual stories may differ vastly, but behind every story are feelings that are familiar to all of us. At some point, we have all found ourselves knee-deep in the messiest of human emotions – anguish, loss, shame, grief, fear, jealousy, disappointment. Empathy lets us tap into our own pain to understand the pain of others. New research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has found that our ability to do this may be interrupted by a common painkiller. 

The research found that when participants took acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, they were less responsive to the pain and suffering of others, compared to those who did not take a painkiller. (Acetaminophen is also known as paracetamol, the main ingredient in Panadol.)

Acetaminophen is found in more than 600 medicines. It is the most common drug ingredient in the United States and is used by about 23% of American adults each week.

The Popular Painkiller That Reduces Empathy – The Research

The research consisted of a number of separate studies. In the first study, 40 college students were given 1000mg of acetaminophen while the other half were given a placebo. The students had no idea whether they had taken the drug or the placebo.

After the participants had waited for an hour for the drug to take effect, they read about eight individual people who were each experiencing some sort of physical or emotional pain. The stories included one about somebody who had received a cut with a knife that went down to the bone, and another about a person whose father had died. The participants had to rate the pain they believed each person would be experiencing from 1 (no pain) to 5 (worst possible pain).

Those who had taken the acetaminophen rated the severity of pain as lower, compared to those who had taken the placebo.

In the second study, 72 college students took acetaminophen and 72 took the placebo. They were then exposed to four 2-second blasts of white noise from 75 decibels (about the noise of an average vacuum cleaner) to 105 decibels (the noise of a power lawn mower or a live rock concert). They then had to rate their experience of the noise on a scale of 1 (not at all unpleasant) or 10 (extremely unpleasant). They were then asked to imagine the level of pain the same noise blasts might cause someone else.

Compared to those who took the placebo, the people who took the acetaminophen rated the noise blasts as more tolerable for themselves, and more tolerable for others.

Similar results were found when participants were asked to watch an online game which involved two players actively excluding a third person from playing. Each participant had met and socialised with the three people involved (the two playing and the one excluded) briefly before the study. Those who took the acetaminophen rated the pain of the excluded person as less severe, compared to the ratings by those who took the placebo.

We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning … (T)hose who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.Baldwin Way, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

The results support previous research that found the same part of the brain is activated when people experience pain, and when they imagine other people feeling the same pain. It makes sense then, that when medication is taken to reduce a person’s own experience of pain, it will also reduce the ability to feel the pain of other people.

In short bursts, reduced empathy might not seem such a big deal, but it only takes a moment for arguments to fever up.

Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.–Baldwin Way.

Earlier research found that acetaminophen reduces the pain of social rejection (as in the pain of a breakup), but research since has found that that acetaminophen also flattens positive emotions, like joy. 

The researchers are now turning their attention to ibuprofen, another common pain medication, to see if there are similar results.

8 Comments

Monika

This is very interesting. I got onto your website trying yo find connection between my strange reaction to pain. I feel as if any pain, physical or mental, alters my perception of reality and affects my personality. I have rather low pain threshold and am very emotional, to the point of not being able to control my outbursts of emotions – it usually is demonstrated by tears at the slightest emotional trigger.
I’m wondering if there are any articles that you could point me towards, so I can explore this further with my psychotherapist. Thank you for your articles, they help so much!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Monika I’m pleased the articles are helpful for you. Physical pain and emotional pain activate the same parts of the brain, so what you are describing makes sense. Here is an article that explains the science of that https://www.heysigmund.com/your-body-during-a-breakup/. It is about the pain of a breakup, but it explains the concept and research around the connection between emotional pain and physical pain. Hope it helps.

Reply
Steph

I suspect I am a bit premature with this query but are there any plans afoot to study the effects amongst pregnant women?
In the UK pain relievers such as Paracetamol & Co-codamol (which contains paracetamol) are currently bottom of the list in terms of risk during pregnancy. While your article suggests that the effects on the mother are likely to be short term, what might the effects on a developing foetus be?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

That’s a really good question Steph. I’m not aware of plans to study the effects in pregnant women, but that certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. Will keep an eye out!

Reply
Rick

“The researchers are now turning their attention to ibuprofen.”
What did they find?

Reply
Ann W.

I have to say I have never lacked having a feeling of empathy whenever I have taken Tylenol. But then again, I have known a few people who didn’t take Tylenol or any other drugs/painkillers either OTC or prescribed who lacked empathy. I wonder if there is something else going on; perhaps a gene that makes some people less empathetic in general that somehow converts to complete apathy whenever they take Tylenol or certain other drugs. I think this begs further research.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

The research is very new, but the researchers aren’t saying that Tylenol wipes out empathy. It reduces it, it doesn’t get rid of it. As they point out in the quote in the article, sometimes just a little tip in empathy levels might be enough to change the shape of an argument. It’s an interesting area and I expect there will be plenty more research to come.

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All kids need the 'the right things' to thrive. The right people, the right motivation, the right encouragement. Out in the world, at school, or wherever they find themselves, kids and teens with anxiety don't need any extra support - they just need their share, but in a way that works for them. 

In a world that tends to turn towards the noise, it can be easy for the ones that tend to stand back and observe and think and take it all in, to feel as though they need to be different - but they don't. Kids and teens who are vulnerable to anxiety tend to have a different and wonderful way of looking at the world. They're compassionate, empathic, open-hearted, brave and intelligent. They're exactly the people the world needs. The last thing we want is for them to think they need to be anyone different to who they are.

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Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.'

We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us. Until they have a felt sense of safety though, we won’t see it.

This safety will only happen through relationship. This isn’t a child thing, or an anxiety thing. It’s a human thing. We’re all wired to feel safest when we’re connected to the people around us. For children it starts with the adult in the room.

We can pour all the resources we want into learning support, or behaviour management, but until children have a felt sense of safety and connection with the adult in the room, the ‘thinking brain’ won’t be available. This is the frontal cortex, and it’s the part of the brain needed for learning, deliberate decisions, thinking through consequences, rational thinking. During anxiety, it’s sent offline.

Anxiety is not about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. A child can have the safest, most loving, brilliant teacher, but until there is a felt sense of connection with that teacher (or another adult in the room), anxiety will interrupt learning, behaviour, and their capacity to show the very best of what they can do. And what they can do will often be surprising - insightful, important, beautiful things.

But relationships take time. Safety and trust take time. The teachers who take this time are the ones who will make the world feel safer for these children - all children, and change their world in important, enduring ways. This is when learning will happen. It’s when we’ll stop losing children who fly under the radar, or whose big behaviour takes them out of the classroom, or shifts the focus to the wrong things (behaviour, learning, avoidance, over relationships).

The antidote to anxiety is trust, and the greatest way to support learning and behaviour is with safe, warm, loving relationships. It’s just how it is, and there are no shortcuts.
In uncertain times, one thing that is certain is the profound power of you to help their world feel safe enough. You are everything to them and however scary the world feels, the safety of you will always feel bigger. 

When the world feels fragile, they will look to us for strength. When it feels unpredictable, they will look to us for calm. When they feel small, we can be their big. 

Our children are wired to feel safe when they are connected and close to us. That closeness doesn’t always have to mean physical proximity, but of course that will be their favourite. Our words can build their safe base, “I know this feels scary love, and I know we will be okay.” And our words can become their wings, “I can hear how worried you are, and I know you are brave enough. You were built for this my love. What can you do that would be brave right now?”

We might look for the right things to do or the right things to say to make things better for them, but the truth of it all is the answer has always been you. Your warmth, your validation, your presence, your calm, your courage. You have the greatest power to help them feel big enough. You don’t have to look for it or reach for it - it’s there, in you. Everything you need to help them feel safe enough and brave enough is in you. 

This doesn’t mean never feeling scared ourselves. It’s absolutely okay to feel whatever we feel. What it means is allowing it to be, and adding in what we can. Not getting over it, but adding into it - adding strength, calm, courage. So we feel both - anxious and strong, uncertain and determined, scared and safe ‘enough’. 

When our children see us move through our own anxiety, restlessness, or uncertainty with courage, it opens the way for them to do the same. When our hearts are brave enough and calm enough, our children will catch this, and when they do, their world will feel safe enough and they will feel big enough.
The temptation to lift our kiddos out of the way of anxiety can be spectacular. Here's the rub though - avoidance has a powerful way of teaching them that the only way to feel safe is to avoid. This makes sense, but it can shrink their world. 

We also don't want to go the other way, and meet their anxiety by telling them there's nothing to worry about. They won't believe it anyway. The option is to ride the wave with them. Breathe, be still, and stay in the moment so they can find their way there too. 

This is hard - an anxious brain will haul them into the future and try to buddy them up with plenty of 'what-ifs' - the raging fuel for anxiety. Let them know you get it, that you see them, and that you know they can do this. They won't buy it straight away, and that's okay. The brain learns from experience, so the more they are brave, the more they are brave - and we know they are brave.

 #parenting #positiveparenting #parenthood #parentingtips #childdevelopment #anxietyinchildren #neuronurtured #childanxiety #parentingadvice #heywarrior #anxietysupport #anxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #parentingtip #neurodevelopment
To do this, we will often need to ‘go first’ with calm and courage. This will mean calming our own anxiety enough, so we can lead them towards things that are good for them, rather than supporting their avoidance of things that feel too big, but which are important or meaningful. 

The very thing that makes you a wonderful parent, can also get in the way of moving them through anxiety. As their parent, you were built to feel distress at their distress. This distress works to mobilise you to keep them safe. This is how it’s meant to work. The problem is that sometimes, anxiety can show up in our children when it there is no danger, and no need to protect. 

Of course sometimes there is a very real need to keep our children safe, and to support them in the retreat from danger. Sometimes though, the greatest things we can do for them is support their move towards the things that are important a or meaningful, but which feel too big in the moment. One of the things that makes anxiety so tough to deal with is that it can look the same whether it is in response to a threat, or in response to things that will flourish them. 

When anxiety happens in the absence of threat, it can move us to (over)protect them from the things that will be good for them (but which register as threat). I’ve done it so many times myself. We’re human, and the pull to move our children out of the way of the things that are causing their distress will be seismic. The key is knowing when the anxiety is in response to a real threat (and to hold them back from danger) and when it is in response to something important and meaningful (and to gently support them forward). The good news is that you were built to move towards through both - courage and safety. The key to strengthening them is knowing which one when - and we don’t have to get it right every time.♥️

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