Does my life have any meaning? What happens after my death? Why can't I tolerate art films? If such weighty questions fill your hours with anxiety, new research suggests a simple fix for your existential dread— Extra Strength Tylenol.
The over-the-counter pain medication, typically used to relieve physical pain from headaches, fevers, or injuries, was previously found to reduce emotional pain from being ostracized by friends.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia speculated that acetaminophen, the generic form of Tylenol, might also act on other types of pain, like existential dread from contemplating the human condition— or watching surreal, anxiety-inducing films by the director David Lynch.
"Pain extends beyond tissue damage and hurt feelings, and includes the distress and existential angst we feel when we're uncertain or have just experienced something surreal," said lead researcher Daniel Randles in a press release.
The study, published last week in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that such existential dread is registered by the brain as pain, and that Tylenol "seems to inhibit the signal telling the brain that something is wrong."
Randles' research involved two experiments in which college students took either 1,000 mg of Tylenol-brand acetaminophen or a sugar pill placebo before completing anxiety-inducing tasks.
Thinking About Your Own Death
In the first experiment, the Tylenol and placebo groups were split in half: part of each was asked to write about what will happen to their body after they die, and how they feel about it— a salient primer for existential dread. The other part wrote about what it feels like to have dental pain, which is unpleasant but not existentially threatening.
After that, all the participants read a hypothetical arrest report about a prostitute and were asked to set the amount of the bail on a scale of $0 to $999. This component was based on previous research on the "meaning-maintenance model," which suggests that after experiencing some kind of threat to meaning, like considering their own deaths, people are more likely to make harsher social judgments of people who flout cultural norms and commonly held values.
As the researchers expected, participants that wrote about their own deaths while taking a placebo set the highest bail amounts, suggesting that they made harsher social judgments after feeling more existential dread beforehand.
The participants who contemplated their own deaths after taking Tylenol, however, set bail at similarly low amounts as the group that wrote about dental pain— about 40% less— suggesting that Tylenol reduced the existential anxiety that would have otherwise have made them judge more harshly.
Watching a Creepy David Lynch Film
The second experiment was set up similarly, except the stimulus for existential dread was a surreal film clip made by David Lynch, known for such disorienting cult classics as Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive. As the researchers wrote, "the indefinable 'mood' or 'feeling' Lynch seeks to convey is linked to a form of intellectual uncertainty— what he calls being 'lost in darkness and confusion.'"
Participants in the experimental group watched an unsettling 4-minute clip from the 2002 David Lynch film Rabbits, while those in the control group watched a lighter clip from an episode of "The Simpsons." Rabbits is not explicitly about death or morality, but features strange elements like humanoid rabbits in a harshly lit suburban living room, ominous non sequiturs, a random laugh track, an eerie soundtrack, and no discernible narrative.
Afterward, all participants were asked to judge how harshly to punish a group of hockey fans for vandalism after they rioted when the Vancouver Canucks lost a Stanley Cup game, a notoriously destructive 2011 incident.
The results mirrored those of the first experiment. People who took a placebo pill and watched Rabbits before rendering judgment on the hockey rioters were the most severe, while those who took Tylenol and watched the same video were as lenient as those who watched "The Simpsons."
Randles believes the findings show that Tylenol can be an effective treatment for existential dread from a variety of unsettling causes, from worrying about death to watching disturbing films.
"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," he said in the team's statement.
How Can Tylenol Reduce Existential Dread?
The paper suggests that Tylenol acts specifically on the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) in the brain, the "cortical alarm system" that responds to physical, emotional, social, or existential disturbances. When a person's expectations are violated, the dACC induces feelings of unease that register as anxiety or pain.
It's unclear how generalizable the findings are to populations other than college students, but the researchers believe they have confirmed that Tylenol "has more far-reaching psychological consequences than previously realized."
"That a drug used primarily to alleviate headaches may also numb people to the worry of thoughts of their deaths, or to the uneasiness of watching a surrealist film— is a surprising and very interesting finding," said Randles in the statement.
Still, it's unclear how safe or effective Tylenol would be in treating chronic anxiety. Acetaminophen acts on many brain regions, some of which are unrelated to distress or pain. While generally safe in low doses, Tylenol overdoses can cause illness and even death from liver failure—if existential dread permeates all your waking hours, popping too much Tylenol can actually hasten the arrival of what you fear most.
Even if acetaminophen is not proven to be as effective an anxiety treatment as prescription drugs like Xanax and Ativan, it may come to serve as a research tool for minor mood manipulations in lab experiments that investigate the overlapping brain mechanisms behind different kinds of pain and anxiety.
If nothing else, the study must please David Lynch himself—the director may be an agent of existential dread in his films, but in life he is a major proponent of easing anxiety with Transcendental Meditation. Perhaps Tylenol can supplement the consciousness-raising technique.