Can Ibuprofen Mend a Broken Heart?

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That handy bottle of ibuprofen in your medicine cabinet has probably been a blessing in times of misery. Headache? Wash a couple down with a glass of water. Fever? Take two and get some rest. But what about for emotional pain, like a broken heart or a bruised ego? Those pills might help, but only if you’re a woman: According to a recent study co-authored by Anita Vangelisti of the Moody College of Communication and James Pennebaker, UT’s Department of Psychology chair, the over-the-counter painkiller ibuprofen relieves hurt feelings in women but, oddly enough, not in men.

Common knowledge dictates that emotional pain and physical pain are two separate beings. However, recent research has shown that similar areas in the brain light up for both emotional and physical pain—and that ibuprofen has proven to help the hurt feelings. Now, though, Vangelisti’s research shows that while ibuprofen helps hurt feelings in women, it actually makes them worse in men, revealing opposing ways of helping the different sexes treat social pain.

“Hurt feelings are a part of any close relationship, so learning how to think and talk about the social pain we experience in our relationships is important,” Vangelisti says. “Understanding differences in the way women and men deal with their hurt feelings could go a long way toward helping couples cope with these feelings in their romantic and marital relationships.”

Vangelisti’s study, called Reducing social pain: Sex differences in the impact of physical pain relievers, involved 138 students as participants—62 men and 76 women. After some initial questions, half were given 400mg of ibuprofen and half were given a placebo. In one part of the study, the participants played a virtual game called “Cyberball” that creates feelings of social pain by excluding the player from tossing a ball with two computer-controlled avatars. In another part, the participants were asked to give a detailed description of a time where they felt betrayed by someone close to them.

After both parts, they were asked to rate their emotions, and Vangelisti and her colleagues were struck by how negative the men of the ibuprofen group’s emotional responses were when compared to the rest of the participants.

Women are better at expressing social pain than men, Vangelisti says, possibly because of social conditioning—the idea that men should be the “strong, silent type” and refrain from expressing their emotions. But the study’s results, she says, beg the question of how and why ibuprofen affects the two sexes differently.

“It’s possible that taking physical pain relievers provides men with more cognitive resources to express the pain they feel,” says Vangelisti of her findings. “There’s some evidence that, for men, the part of the brain that enables them to regulate their emotions is linked to the part of the brain that processes physical and social pain. If that’s the case, taking a physical pain reliever may affect men’s ability to hide or suppress their social pain.”

The results of Vangelisti’s study may expose differences in the ways women and men might best help each other deal with their hurt feelings and may help to address the way men and women think about and express feelings, as well as measuring the degree to which physical and social pain are linked.

“If our findings hold up for younger people, it also could help us address differences in the way children and adolescents think about and respond to socially painful situations like bullying,” says Vangelisti.

So does that mean we should all start popping ibuprofen whenever our feelings are hurt? Absolutely not, says Vangelisti. “In time, we may see psychiatrists prescribing painkillers for social pain—judiciously, I hope—but right now there are too many unanswered questions that our study has raised for this to be considered a viable treatment.”

Illustration by Melissa Reese

 

 

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