The Battery | How to Be a Person: Cultivating Mental Health During a Pandemic & Beyond (Dec 3, 2020)
Jonathan Shedler (44:37): A lot of people have talked about the importance of recognizing feelings, emotions, emotional life, naming them, attending to them, and I think we psychologists take it for granted because it's our bread and butter, but it's not always obvious to everybody why that matters, why it's important.
One of the things I often tell my patients, because this is actually one of the universal human problems, there are certain categories of feelings that are unpleasant, that we tend to push away or disregard to the extent that we can. And that comes with a cost. The reason we want to push the feelings away or disregard them is because they're unpleasant, so there is a sort of an immediate benefit. Let me not pay attention to how angry I am, let me not pay attention to how hopeless or lost or despairing I feel. Why would I want to dwell on these kinds of feelings? There are 2 answers.
One is, the way we are built, it's not possible to selectively put the lid on certain kinds of feelings and not others. If you put the lid on anger, sadness, the feelings you don't want, you are actually also putting the lid on joy, excitement, passion, spontaneity, love, connection. So it becomes very limiting.
The second reason is, we are built, we are evolutionarily designed to have emotional life for a reason. The metaphor I often with my patients who struggle with this is: we are all sort of in the same business of trying to navigate our way through the wilderness of life. There is a lot in life that's tough to navigate. We don't get handed a road map of how to live, and where to go, and what are the right decisions. We are all trying to figure it out as we go and navigate, and the compass that we have to help us navigate is our emotional life. It's our emotional life that tells us, is this path the right path for me? Does this feel good or does this feel bad? Is this making me happier, more at peace? Or is this making me unhappier, less at peace? So trying to navigate life with limited access to our emotions leaves us in the position of trying to navigate blindly through the wilderness. And usually we end up somewhere we don't want to be.
GRO Durso, A Luttrell, BM Way. (2015). Over-the-counter relief from pains and pleasures alike: Acetaminophen blunts evaluation sensitivity to both negative and positive stimuli. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797615570366
Acetaminophen, an effective and popular over-the-counter pain reliever (e.g., the active ingredient in Tylenol), has recently been shown to blunt individuals’ reactivity to a range of negative stimuli in addition to physical pain. Because accumulating research has shown that individuals’ reactivity to both negative and positive stimuli can be influenced by a single factor (an idea known as differential susceptibility), we conducted two experiments testing whether acetaminophen blunted individuals’ evaluations of and emotional reactions to both negative and positive images from the International Affective Picture System. Participants who took acetaminophen evaluated unpleasant stimuli less negatively and pleasant stimuli less positively, compared with participants who took a placebo. Participants in the acetaminophen condition also rated both negative and positive stimuli as less emotionally arousing than did participants in the placebo condition (Studies 1 and 2), whereas nonevaluative ratings (extent of color saturation in each image; Study 2) were not affected by drug condition. These findings suggest that acetaminophen has a general blunting effect on individuals’ evaluative and emotional processing, irrespective of negative or positive valence.
D Mischkowski, J Crocker, BM Way. (2016). From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw057
Simulation theories of empathy hypothesize that empathizing with others’ pain shares some common psychological computations with the processing of one’s own pain. Support for this perspective has largely relied on functional neuroimaging evidence of an overlap between activations during the experience of physical pain and empathy for other people’s pain. Here, we extend the functional overlap perspective to the neurochemical level and test whether a common physical painkiller, acetaminophen (paracetamol), can reduce empathy for another’s pain. In two double-blind placebo-controlled experiments, participants rated perceived pain, personal distress and empathic concern in response to reading scenarios about another's physical or social pain, witnessing ostracism in the lab, or visualizing another study participant receiving painful noise blasts. As hypothesized, acetaminophen reduced empathy in response to others’ pain. Acetaminophen also reduced the unpleasantness of noise blasts delivered to the participant, which mediated acetaminophen's effects on empathy. Together, these findings suggest that the physical painkiller acetaminophen reduces empathy for pain and provide a new perspective on the neurochemical bases of empathy. Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, these drug-induced reductions in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen, which is taken by almost a quarter of adults in the United States each week.