To patch that hole of existential dread, don’t just read Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Dostoyevsky… pop a Tylenol:
A common pain-reliever can also be used to cope with existential dread – anxiety arising from thinking about death – according to a new study.
Acetaminophen or Tylenol is an over-the-counter pain medicine used to relieve minor aches or fever. The new study has shown that Tylenol can also help reduce pain experienced after thinking about death or uncertainty of life.
“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. Regardless of the kind of pain, taking Tylenol seems to inhibit the brain signal that says something is wrong,” said Daniel Randles from the University of British Columbia.
The study included 120 college students who were divided into two groups; with one getting a 1,000 mg pill of Tylenol while the other got a sugar pill.
One of the study groups was asked to write about dental pain and the other was asked to write about their own death. Both groups were then asked to read about an arrest of a prostitute. Participants were then told that the bail amount for the hypothetical prostitute was on the scale of 0-$500.
Researchers found that people who were on the sugar pill and were asked to think about death were most likely to pay the highest bail amount, while those who had no such existential fear (the acetaminophen group) set the bail amount to around $300.
In the second part of the study, the participants were shown a clip of surreal video by director David Lynch and then a video of rioters following a hockey game. Researchers found that people on Tylenol were less likely to judge the rioters harshly than those on the sugar pill.
“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,” Randles said in a news release.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
“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,” Randles concluded.
The Lynch film excerpt they showed the subjects was a ‘rabbits‘ segment from Inland Empire.
More on this study in The Atlantic.