We all know worrying is useless, but some people just can't help but sweat the small stuff. Never mind life and death.
A surprising new study from the University of British Columbia has found that Tylenol, the ubiquitous over-the-counter pain drug, may also reduce the physiological effects of the type of anxiety and fear known as "existential dread."
"We were surprised, but there was good theoretical reason to suspect this might work, especially following recent research that shows Tylenol helps to relieve feelings of social alienation, Daniel Randles, the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post Canada.
Randles says the study suggests that emotional pain and physical pain are processed by the brain in a similar way, and that Tylenol seems to inhibit the signal that something is wrong. The study pointed to one region in the brain that responds to both types of pain.
The study used the euphemism "existential dread" to describe the kind of anxiety people have when they think about the meaning of life and fear of death. Randles noted that people who tend to be distressed about existential uncertainty and death are also more anxious about everyday things in general.
The research examined more than 350 UBC psychology students over the last 12 months. In the study, participants took the generic form of Tylenol, acetaminophen, or a placebo while performing tasks designed to evoke feelings of anxiety, such as talking about what will happen to their bodies when they die — an old psychological manipulation — and watching a surreal and creepy David Lynch video from his short film series called "Rabbits."
"We chose this one because it features a lot of narrative events that make people feel a little bit uneasy, the dialogue doesn't match up, the characters appear to be talking about important things but they don't react to each other's statements and there's a laugh track but it's used in appropriately and everyone is dressed in rabbit costumes with no explanation as to why," Randles says.
The participants were then asked to assign fines of different types of crimes, including public rioting and prostitution. Compared to the placebo group, the researchers found the people taking acetaminophen were much more lenient in judging the acts of the criminals and therefore more equipped to cope with troubling thoughts and ideas.
Randles says the results suggest that participants’ existential suffering was “treated” by the headache drug, however he cautioned that further research and clinical trials are still needed before acetaminophen should be used considered a safe or effective anxiety treatment.