The side effects of over-the-counter drugs are usually so boring and run-of-the-milll: drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth. But researchers from the University of British Columbia now report preliminary findings that Tylenol (active ingredient – acetaminophen, aka paracetamol) has one bizarre but not entirely unwelcome side effect: decreasing anxiety and unease about death (i.e. “existential angst“).
In various trials of a double-blind study, participants (some given Tylenol, some given a placebo) talked about death (e.g., what happens to our bodies after death?), and were asked to watch a “surreal and confusing” short video. Then, participants were asked to recommend punishments for criminals, like prostitutes and rioters. Placebo participants recommended harsh punishments, but Tylenol-taking participants recommended the same punishments as control participants (who hadn’t discussed death or watched a creepy video at all).
The Tylenol-takers may have meted out milder punishments than other participants in the treatment group because their moods were better, despite having been encouraged to think the same dread- and angst-inducing thoughts. Previously, Tylenol was found to have another interesting psychological effect – reducing the psychological pain of social rejection. That’s because Tylenol works on the same part of the brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – that’s activated by unexpected social situations. So, a general, if preliminary, characterization of Tylenol as a general brain-state-improver has begun to emerge from the evidence. It seems to alleviate discomfort across the board: physical, social, and existential.
Of course, these studies have us all thinking “Oh cool, so I can just take Tylenol when I’m feeling unsure about my life.” Not so fast, friends: Tylenol may work for this purpose, but is it worth the risk? Even over-the-counter painkillers can have serious health consequences: there’s evidence that even moderate (2-3 days per week) usage of Tylenol can substantially increase your chances of experiencing hearing loss later in life.
Just as importantly, though, remember that Tylenol is only (maybe) a quick fix to your existential difficulties. Anxiety about death may not be pleasant, but a certain amount is beneficial – it can motivate us to make the most of our lives while we’ve got ‘em. Why would you want to numb yourself to this unique and powerful aspect of the human condition?
And if you truly feel chronic, debilitating anxiety or “existential angst” (and a mental health practitioner has determined it’s not something more serious, like clinical depression), then consider pursuing less risky avenues towards well-being, that have longer-lasting effects: eating cleaner, getting more exercise, spending more time with the people who are important to you, changing jobs to something you really enjoy, etc. I’m far from puritanical about pharmaceuticals, but this philosopher (graduated magna cum laude, baby) can tell you that a solution to the problem of the meaning of life ain’t found at the bottom of a Tylenol bottle.