One never knows what one may come to. When we launched this blog, we could hardly forsee that Tylenol (or acetaminophen, which is Tylenol's generic form) would be discussed an an anti-anxiety drug. However, this popular pain reliever seems to be opening a new page in its history. According to new research which was held by Dan Randles, a PhD student at UBC’s psychology department together with UBC professor Steve Heine and their colleagues at the University of British Columbia, acetaminophen is able to ease emotional pain and fever just like it can relieve physical aches.
"Pain exists in many forms. It extends beyond tissue damage and hurt feelings, and includes the distress and existential angst we feel when we're exposed to thoughts of existential uncertainty and death, or have just experienced something surreal," says Randles. "Our study suggests these anxieties may be processed as 'pain' by the brain. Regardless of the kind of pain, Tylenol seems to inhibit the signal telling the brain that something is wrong."
In a series of experiments, volunteers were offered several disturbing tasks, such as thinking about their own death, or watching creepy movies. But first, the groups of volunteers had been devided into smaller subgroups, and the participants of each subgroup were given either doses of acetaminophen, or placebo sugar pills.
What was the result? It turned out that the volunteers who had taken acetaminophen expressed much less negativity than the placebo group did.
In the first 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 dental pain, 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.
It turned out that the control group that wrote about dental pain (something which causes much less anxiety than thoughts about death) gave relatively low bail amounts, only about $300. On the other hand, the participants who wrote about their own death and were given a placebo pill gave over $500 for bail. However, the volunteers in this group who took acetaminophen were not nearly as harsh in setting bail. (Do not forget that no of the volunteers knew which kind of pill they took.)
In the second study, the volunteers were shown the surreal and thrilling Rabbits by David Lynch, and then asked to judge the violence which had taken place during the Vancouver Stanley Cup of 2011. It also turned out that the acetaminophen group did not feel so critical against the Vancouver rioters as those who had only taken placebo.
"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... 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," says Randles.
Well, it may be. But we have to remember that acetaminophen is still very harmful for the liver. And taking Tylenol in order to decrease anxiety and improve mental health increases the worries about the physical condition of a patient.
However, the interesting fact that suffering from physical pain has much in common with suffering from anxiety caused by existentail fears, and both can be cured by the same chemical substance is worth considering.