Wouldn’t it be nice if we could pop a couple of Tylenol for anxiety? Studies recently reported that the “existential dread” from contemplating your own death is susceptible to a 1000 mg dose of acetaminophen. It’s not often that research studies make for entertaining reading, but in this case, it is. The Huffingon Post says,
New research shows Tylenol may have the unseen psychological side-effect of easing existential dread. The findings suggest anxiety about finding meaning in life and feeling physical pain may be rooted in the same part of the brain.
“When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they’re feeling may actually be painful distress,” said study researcher Daniel Randles, a doctoral student in psychology the University of British Columbia.
“We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress,” Randles wrote in an email to LiveScience.
The amount of press that the study findings are generating might give the wrong impression that this is a breakthrough study about the connection between physical pain and emotional distress. In fact, this study is an extension of earlier findings of four years ago that over the counter remedies help to ease the pain of social rejection.
This article from Science Daily reported the following in 2009:
A research team led by psychologist C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology has uncovered evidence indicating that acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) may blunt social pain.
“The idea — that a drug designed to alleviate physical pain should reduce the pain of social rejection — seemed simple and straightforward based on what we know about neural overlap between social and physical pain systems. To my surprise, I couldn’t find anyone who had ever tested this idea,” DeWall said.
According to a study due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, DeWall and colleagues were correct. Physical and social pain appear to overlap in the brain, relying on some of the same behavioral and neural mechanisms.
The more recent study supports the earlier one, and tests another phenomenon-feelings of “existential dread”.
Nerve pathways and regions of the brain that process physical and mental pain, such as social pain and dread, overlap. This helps explain why acetaminophen helps to ease mental pain as well.
How do scientists induce existential angst in test subjects? They ask subjects to contemplate the aftereffects of their own deaths, of course. Alternatively, they show clips from David Lynch movies. A TIME article describes how
…to recreate the same uncertain, distressing feeling among participants in a study setting, Randles and his team had to get creative. They assigned more than 120 college students to take either a 1,000mg dose of Tylenol or a placebo, and asked half of each group to write about what would happen to their body after they died…
And as the Huffington Post article says:
The team confirmed the results in a second test where they made some students watch either a four-minute clip from “The Simpsons” or a clip from “Rabbits,” a 2002 series of short films by director David Lynch that puts a surreal spin on familiar sitcom clichés.
Finally, the same article says that:
As for clinical applications of the findings, the researchers say their work could shed light on how to allay the symptoms of people who suffer from chronic anxiety.
As the media and the news spreads, it should be cautioned that this does not mean that Tylenol is now a proven treatment for fear or anxiety. Researchers do hope that these studies are a lead to the treatment of anxiety disorders with further research. However, a lab study does not automatically translate to the population at large. Test subjects were not people with clinical anxiety disorders. And what about those who actually enjoy existential angst? TIME covers this too:
If the research had been done with David Lynch fans, says Randles, “It’s entirely possible that we would have had a null result.”