Experiencing existential dread? Tylenol may do the trick

Thinking about death can cause us to feel a sort of existential angst that isn't attributable to a specific source. Now, new research suggests that acetaminophen, an over-the-counter pain medication, may help to reduce this existential pain.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for .

According to lead researcher Daniel Randles and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, the new findings suggest that may have more profound than previously thought:

"Pain extends beyond and hurt feelings, and includes the distress and existential angst we feel when we're uncertain or have just experienced something surreal. Regardless of the kind of pain, taking Tylenol seems to inhibit the that says something is wrong."

Randles and colleagues knew from previous research that when the richness, order, and meaning in life is threatened—with thoughts of death, for instance—people tend to reassert their basic values as a coping mechanism.

The researchers also knew that both physical and social pain—like bumping your head or being ostracized from friends—can be alleviated with acetaminophen. Randles and colleagues speculated that the existentialist suffering we face with thoughts of death might involve similar . If so, they asked, would it be possible to reduce that suffering with a simple ?

The researchers had participants take either Tylenol brand acetaminophen or a sugar pill placebo in a double-blind study. One group of participants was asked to write about what would happen to their body after they die, and the control group was asked to write about having , an unpleasant but not existentially distressing thought.

All the participants were then asked to read an arrest report about a prostitute, and to set the amount for bail.

Just as expected, the that wrote about dental pain—who weren't made to feel an existentialist threat—gave relatively low bail amounts, only about $300. They didn't feel the need to assert their values.

On the other hand, the participants who wrote about their own death and were given a sugar pill gave over $500 for bail – about 40% more than the dental pain group, in line with previous studies. They responded to the threat on life's meaning and order by affirming their basic values, perhaps as a coping mechanism.

But, the participants in this group who took Tylenol were not nearly as harsh in setting bail. These results suggest that their existential suffering was 'treated' by the headache drug.

A second study confirmed these results using video clips. People who watched a surreal video by director David Lynch and took the sugar pill judged a group of rioters following a hockey game most harshly, while those who watched the video and took Tylenol were more lenient.

The study demonstrates that existentialist dread is not limited to thinking about death, but might generalize to any scenario that is confusing or surprising—such as an unsettling movie.

"We're still taken aback that we've found that a drug used primarily to alleviate headaches can also make people numb to the worry of thinking about their deaths, or to the uneasiness of watching a surrealist film," says Randles.

The researchers believe that these studies may have implications for clinical interventions down the road.

"For people who suffer from chronic anxiety, or are overly sensitive to uncertainty, this work may shed some light on what is happening and how their symptoms could be reduced," Randles concludes.

More information: The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen Reduces Compensatory Affirmation Following Meaning Threats, Psychological Science, 2013.

Related Stories

Broken hearts really hurt

Feb 22, 2012

"Broken-hearted" isn't just a metaphor -- social pain and physical pain have a lot in common, according to Naomi Eisenberger of the University of Califiornia-Los Angeles, the author of a new paper published in Current Di ...

Over-the-counter painkiller may help ease emotional slights

Aug 12, 2010

Maybe that disgruntled JetBlue flight attendant should have popped a couple of Tylenols. A University of Florida researcher says acetaminophen, an ingredient in the popular over-the-counter pain reliever, may relieve social ...

Could acetaminophen ease psychological pain?

Dec 22, 2009

Headaches and heartaches. Broken bones and broken spirits. Hurting bodies and hurt feelings. We often use the same words to describe physical and mental pain. Over-the-counter pain relieving drugs have long been used to alleviate ...

Public confused about ingredients in pain relievers

May 03, 2011

People take billions of doses of over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol every year, but many do not pay attention to the active ingredients they contain, such as acetaminophen, according to a new Northwestern Medicine ...

Recommended for you

YouTube as peer support for severe mental illness

Oct 17, 2014

People with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder use a popular social media website like YouTube to provide and receive naturally occurring peer support, Dartmouth researchers ...

User comments