Over 50 million Americans take Tylenol or other acetaminophen pain relievers to cope with headaches and pain. What many don’t know is the psychological benefits the over-the counter medication can also give them.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada say that acetaminophen may help suppress the existential angst that comes with thoughts of death. Their findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“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.
“Regardless of the kind of pain, taking Tylenol seems to inhibit the brain signal that says something is wrong.”
Previous studies have shown that acetaminophen was helpful in alleviating both physical and social pain, like bumping your head or being ostracized from friends. Randles and his colleagues wondered if the existential suffering we face with thoughts of death involve similar brain processes. If so, would it be possible to reduce that suffering with a simple pain medicine?
Researchers had participants take either Tylenol or a sugar pill placebo in a double-blind study. One group was asked to write about what would happen to their body after they die, while the placebo 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. The control group that wrote about dental pain gave relatively low bail amounts, only about $300.
The participants who wrote about their own death and were given a sugar pill gave over $400 for bail.
But people who took Tylenol were not nearly as harsh in setting bail, suggesting that their existential suffering was ‘treated’ by the headache drug.
In a second study, 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.
“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,” said Randles.
The results of these studies, said Randles, 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.”
A previous study by UCLA researchers found that acetaminophen can also help mend emotional pain from a broken heart. Looking at brain scans of people who experienced social rejection, researchers discovered they were similar to scans of people who were in physical pain.
Acetaminophen is found in hundreds of over the counter medications including Tylenol, Excedrin, Nyquil and Sudafed, and it is often combined with opioids to make stronger painkillers such as Vicodin and Percocet. Because it is found in so many products, physicians warn of unintended overdoses that can cause liver damage.
The authors of one study last year called the risk of acetaminophen overdoses a “serious public health threat requiring urgent attention.”