University of British Columbia researchers have found a new potential use for the over-the-counter pain drug Tylenol. Typically known to relieve physical pain, the study suggests the drug may also reduce the psychological effects of fear and anxiety over the human condition, or existential dread.
Published in the Association for Psychological Science journal Psychological Science, the study advances our understanding of how the human brain processes different kinds of pain.
"Pain exists in many forms, including the distress that people feel when exposed to thoughts of existential uncertainty and death," says lead author Daniel Randles, UBC Dept. of Psychology. "Our study suggests these anxieties may be processed as 'pain' by the brain – but Tylenol seems to inhibit the signal telling the brain that something is wrong."
The study builds on recent American research that found acetaminophen – the generic form of Tylenol – can successfully reduce the non-physical pain of being ostracized from friends. The UBC team sought to determine whether the drug had similar effects on other unpleasant experiences – in this case, existential dread.
In the study, participants took acetaminophen or a placebo while performing tasks designed to evoke this kind of anxiety – including writing about death or watching a surreal David Lynch video – and then assign fines to different types of crimes, including public rioting and prostitution.
Compared to a placebo group, the researchers found the people taking acetaminophen were significantly more lenient in judging the acts of the criminals and rioters – and better able to cope with troubling ideas. The results suggest that participants' existential suffering was "treated" by the headache drug.
"That a drug used primarily to alleviate headaches may also numb people to the worry of thoughts of their deaths, or to the uneasiness of watching a surrealist film – is a surprising and very interesting finding," says Randles, a PhD candidate who authored the study with Prof. Steve Heine and Nathan Santos.
While the findings suggest that acetaminophen can help to reduce anxiety, the researchers caution that further research – and clinical trials – must occur before acetaminophen should be considered a safe or effective treatment for anxiety.
The study, The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen Reduces Compensatory Affirmation Following Meaning Threats, is available by request.