April 22, 2013 10:40 am
Updated: April 22, 2013 12:57 pm

UBC study suggests Tylenol eases fear, anxiety and dread

Health Canada says there more than 4,000 hospitalizations a year in this country due to acetaminophen overdoses.

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

These days, it seems like there is a pill for everything.

Now, researchers have found there may even be an over-the-counter drug you can take to ease existential angst.

Researchers at the University of B.C. discovered that an unexpected side-effect of the widely-used painkiller Tylenol is that it can ease fear, anxiety and feelings of dread.

Their findings were reported in a study titled The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death, published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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“Pain exists in many forms, including the distress that people feel when exposed to thoughts of existential uncertainty and death,” said lead author Daniel Randles, a doctoral student at the UBC department of psychology. “Our study suggests these anxieties may be processed as ‘pain’ by the brain – but Tylenol seems to inhibit the signal telling the brain that something is wrong.”

To test their hypothesis, researchers had participants take acetaminophen or a placebo, then watch a surrealist movie (David Lynch’s Rabbits) or write about death and then consider crimes ranging from rioting to prostitution.

Compared to the control group, those who took Tylenol were better able to handle troubling concepts, measured by how severely they assigned fines to crimes they were asked to evaluate after exposure to disturbing material.

Over the course of two studies, about 350 subjects were given either placebos or two extra-strength Tylenols. The researchers saw a “consistent and robust” trend: Those who had taken painkillers were less disturbed by considering death or watching unsettling films.

“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, who authored the study with Prof. Steve Heine and former undergraduate researcher Nathan Santos.

Randles said he believes the drug targeted an area of the brain that deals with uncertainty and anxiety, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

He stressed the research was not designed as a clinical study to determine whether Tylenol should be an accepted treatment for anxiety.

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