When someone hurts your feelings or rejects you, they injure you emotionally. We normally call this kind of pain “emotional pain.” Emotional pain that occurs during stages of grieving or after a rejection, however, is just as physical and real as the pain you feel when stubbing your toe or cutting your finger.
Damage to the skin as well as a compression of tissue can lead the pain receptors, also known as the nociceptors, in the surrounding nerve tissue to fire intensely. The signal is transferred from the peripheral nerve tissue to the central nervous system. From the spinal cord the information continues into the brain. Here, the pain signal enters the thalamus, which then passes the information onto other brain regions so it can get interpreted. The pain signal also reaches the brain’s emotional center, or amygdala, which associates it with emotions, such as anger, fear or sadness.
A study published in the April 2011 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the very same neurons fire in the case of physical and emotional pain. The subjects in the study were exposed to a photograph of an ex-partner who recently broke up with him or her and were asked to think about the rejection and how unwanted it was.
The researchers found that the areas that lit up in brain images were very similar to the brain regions that are hyperactivated during physical pain. The pain areas include secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula. So the brain’s interpretation of damage following a rejection or intense grief is very similar to the brain’s interpretation of a wound or other physical lesion.
Though emotional and physical pain have the same neurological foundation, it is usually thought that they cannot be treated in the same way. Emotional pain can, in many cases, be relieved by anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines and serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Physical pain, on the other hand, is normally treated with over-the-counter NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen sodium, or related over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol. In more severe cases physical pain is treated with drugs in the opioid family, such as morphine, codeine or oxycodone.
A recent study conducted by researchers at University of British Columbia, however, indicates that the over-the-counter medications that can alleviate physical pain may also be effective in numbing emotional pain, specifically the type that is associated with anxiety. The study confirms data from an older study from 2009.
The Canadian researchers studied the effect of Tylenol as a way to alleviate anxiety associated with thoughts about death or exposure to surrealism. In the first part of the study subjects who had received either a 1000 mg Tylenol or a placebo sugar pill were asked to write about dental pain or what would happen to them after they died. The subjects were then given a story about the arrest of a prostitute. After reading the story they were asked to set a bail amount for the prostitute.
In the second part of the study, participants watched a surrealist video by film director David Lynch and then a video portraying rioters.
The researchers found that participants who were given a 1000 mg pill of Tylenol prior to the study tasks were less affected by the anxiety-triggers compared to the participants who had received a placebo sugar pill. The subjects on pain relievers who wrote about their own death and subjects who wrote about dental pain were more lenient in setting a bail than subjects who had not received a Tylenol but had written about what would happen to them after they died. Likewise, participants on Tylenol were less harsh in their ethical judgment of the rioters compared to participants who had received a placebo pill. These results suggest that Tylenol can indeed alleviate anxiety.
The scientists speculate that anxiety, like emotional pain, is interpreted as a type of pain by the brain. Apparently, the brain's physical reaction to these types of pain responds in the same way to over-the-counter painkillers as the physical reaction underlying headaches or sore joints and muscles.