Suffering from existential dread? Take a Tylenol
Published Wednesday, April 17, 2013 6:53AM EDT
The next time you’re suffering an existential crisis, the answer may not be to put Morrissey on an endless loop and indulge in a tub of your favourite ice cream, according to new Canadian research. Rather, your doctor may one day prescribe Tylenol to ease your anxiety over the human condition.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that acetaminophen, known more commonly by its brand name, Tylenol, reduces the normal human responses to anxiety or uneasiness.
Lead study author Daniel Randles, a PhD candidate in the school of social and personality psychology, explains that when people are made to feel uneasy or bothered, they will in some way “affirm” positions they feel strongly about in an effort to regain some control and lessen their anxiety.
“Unless they’ve taken Tylenol,” Randles said in a telephone interview. “Then that doesn’t happen.”
Previous research has suggested that the distress associated with physical pain and being rejected or ostracized is driven by the same neurological process and “actually feels the same way in the mind,” Randles said.
This part of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), not only sends a signal to the brain when pain is occurring, but also when something “socially unexpected” is happening.
This brain region may explain “the feelings that we get when we feel uncertain or we feel a lack of purpose or confused. So it seems possible that if Tylenol can block physical pain and it can block social rejection, it might also interfere with more broad state of unexplainable anxiety or distress.”
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.
The study builds on research that has suggested that acetaminophen can reduce the non-physical pain of being ostracized by friends.
For this study, participants took either acetaminophen or a placebo while they performed tasks designed to provoke a sense of existential dread. In the first part of the study, they either wrote about their own deaths or a control topic, and in the second part they were assigned to either view a surreal video made by filmmaker David Lynch or a control video.
They were then asked to assign punishments for two specific crimes: prostitution and public rioting. It was expected that the participants who performed the anxiety-causing tasks would be stricter with their sentences in an effort to ease their anxiety.
The results showed that participants who took acetaminophen were in fact more lenient, suggesting their anxiety was “treated” by the drug.
The researchers suspect that Tylenol is inhibiting the signal to the brain that something is wrong. However, they will only be able to confirm that by repeating the study and scanning the brains of participants as they complete the tasks.
And before doctors start prescribing Tylenol for anxiety, clinical trials will have to determine whether it is really is having the therapeutic benefit that the current findings suggest.
Meanwhile, the researchers’ peers are keen on their study, if only because it suggests potential relief for the source of most British Columbians’ existential dread: the rain.
“We presented it to our department,” Randles said, “and almost immediately someone said, ‘Oh, we could use that from February to April.’”