The next time you find yourself battling inner demons or haunted by the essential meaninglessness of the universe, you might want to pop a Tylenol. This is because acetaminophen has been shown, in a very clever medical experiment, to reduce feelings of emotional pain, anxiety and existential dread.
It turns out that physical pain and the emotional or psychic pain of anxiety may use the same signaling pathways in the brain. At least that is the thesis of Daniel Randles, lead author of a new study being published in the journal Psychological Science.
Pain exists in many forms, including the distress that people feel when exposed to thoughts of existential uncertainty and death. 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. —Daniel Randles
The test involved subjecting participants to mental duress meant to increase levels of existential dread. This included writing about one’s own death and watching particularly disturbing David Lynch films.
Then participants were given either acetaminophen or a placebo and they were subsequently asked to respond to a number of seemingly disconnected hypothetical questions, such as setting the bail for a criminal. Harsher judgements have been shown to be correlated to personal feelings of fear, insecurity and anxiety.
Those who received the acetaminophen were more lenient in judging others and were better able to cope with disturbing ideas. This suggests that the drug directly helped alleviate the participants’ anxiety.
Whether this effect is large enough to warrant popping a few Tylenol in moments of personal doubt and insecurity has yet to be determined.
Here’s their press release: