Whether you've got a root canal scheduled for next month or you're giving a big presentation tomorrow, feelings of dread can consume you. In fact, researchers have discovered that dread is the most difficult emotion to tolerate.

And in a strange twist, anticipating pain--physical or social--is worse than experiencing the pain. Research has shown this time and time again.

A 2013 study, for example, asked participants whether they'd like to receive a more painful shock now or a less painful shock later (up to 15 minutes in the future). A full 70% of participants opted for the more painful shock now, to avoid the dreadful anticipation of getting a shock later.

While it's unlikely you've ever been faced with a choice involving electric shocks, you might be able to attest to the fact that dread is often worse than the event itself. Perhaps you've spent weeks dreading a networking event only to discover the event wasn't nearly as bad as you imagined.

Or perhaps you couldn't sleep in the weeks leading up to a procedure at the doctor's office but when you finally went to the appointment, you discovered the pain wasn't worth losing sleep over.

So how do you deal with dread? Well, science says Tylenol could take the edge off.

Pain Pills Reduce Emotional Pain

A 2010 study found that acetaminophen eases emotional pain the same way it might help with a headache. When researchers used MRIs to examine brain activity, they discovered that acetaminophen reduces the neural responses in brain regions associated with distress caused by social rejection.

That study concluded acetaminophen reduces emotional pain after someone is ostracized, bullied, or rejected. But what about the pain associated with anticipation?

In a 2013 study, researchers examined whether Tylenol could reduce the distress people experience in the face of uncertainty. In one study, participants were asked to write about what happens to their bodies after they die as a way to induce dread.

The participants who had taken Tylenol experienced less emotional distress compared to the group who was given a placebo. Researchers discovered that the Tylenol inhibited the brain signal that says something is wrong. So similar to the way Tylenol could reduce the pain in an aching knee, it also reduces dread.

Could Acetaminophen be a Good Tool or Unhealthy Crutch?

As a psychotherapist, I don't recommend anyone numb themselves as a way to avoid and escape pain on a regular basis. Sometimes, pain--physical or emotional--is just a symptom of a bigger problem. And learning how to deal with emotional pain in a healthy way can help you build mental strength.

But, as research on the brain and emotions continues to emerge, some doctors might suggest acetaminophen as a short-term tool to help reduce distress when people are struggling to function. After all, significant emotional pain can be just as debilitating as physical pain.

Published on: Feb 9, 2017
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