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Anxiety? Existential crisis? David Lynch film? Take a Tylenol

April 18, 2013|By Deborah Netburn
  • Researchers have found that extra-strength Tylenol may be able to mitigate the pain associated with an existential crisis.
Researchers have found that extra-strength Tylenol may be able to mitigate… (Brendan Smialowski / Getty…)

Are you suffering from an existential crisis? Take two Tylenol and call me in the morning.

New research suggests that acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, may be able to alleviate the pain of an existential crisis in the same way it alleviates the pain of a pounding headache.

An over-the-counter pill for those crushing moments of uncertainty? Yes, please.

Previous studies have shown that physical pain and social pain -- like the pain of feeling left out of a game -- have evolved to use similar neurological mechanisms. They activate the same regions in the brain that respond to unpleasantness. When you take acetaminophen, MRI scans have shown, those parts of your brain activate less and you register less pain -- be it the pain of a sprained ankle or the pain of feeling left out.

Building off this research, scientists in Steve Heine's lab at the University of British Columbia wanted to see if acetaminophen could also dampen those feelings of uncomfortable uncertainty that occur when our sense of the meaning of life is threatened -- like when we think about our death or watch a surrealist film.

To test their theory, they ran two experiments. First, they asked participants to write a few paragraphs about what will happen to their bodies when they die. In the second experiment, they showed participants a clip from David Lynch's 2002 film "Rabbits."

Both experiences were designed to make participants feel unpleasantly uncomfortable, but researchers found that those who were taking Tylenol were less affected by the experiences than those who were taking a placebo.

The study was published in the Assn. for Psychological Science journal Psychological Science.

But before you run out to raid your local pharmacy for Tylenol and other painkillers that contain acetaminophen, lead author Daniel Randles says hold off.

"The results for us were fairly robust, but I wouldn't recommend that people take Tylenol when they are feeling down," he said. "We'd like to see other labs replicate our effort."

Nathan DeWall, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, agreed that it is still too early to suggest that someone suffering from an existential crisis can be helped by Tylenol, but he likes where all this research is going.

"It is a great study that is broadening our perspective on unpleasantness, and showing us effective ways we can reduce it," he said.

But if your friends insist on a David Lynch film night, you could always bring a little Tylenol just in case. 

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