An over-the-counter drug to treat social and existential anxiety? It’s not too good to be true.
These days, you can walk into a drug store and find a cure for almost anything that ails you, especially if you have a prescription. But even if it’s not prescribed by a doctor, from cough syrup to allergy medication, there are plenty of over-the-counter (OTC) treatments available.
One of the most ubiquitous is Tylenol, one of many options available for general relief of pain and headaches. What differentiates Tylenol from other options, like Advil or ibuprofen, is the ingredient acetaminophen. And while acetaminophen provides a good fix for a stubbed toe, it may also offer psychological relief for feelings of anxiety and social rejection. Not bad for an OTC drug.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia conducted two studies with more than 300 participants to test their theory that a dose of acetaminophen can neutralize anxiety cues from the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the part of the brain that responds to social and physical pain.
Their work was recently published in Psychological Science, and while these findings won’t result in an acetaminophen-based anti-anxiety medication any time soon, they’ve uncovered yet another use for Tylenol.
The study authors knew that acetaminophen could dull reactions to physical pain and were curious to see if it produced a similar effect in participants experiencing unsettling feelings of social anxiety or contemplating mortality.
“Physical pain and social rejection share a neural process and subject component that are experienced as distress,” the study authors wrote. As it turns out, acetaminophen, even in a non-prescription dose, dulls feelings of anxiety and psychological responses to questions about life and death.
The researchers chose unsettling questions about death and the surrealist works of filmmaker David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr., etc.) to provide participants with a controlled, but particularly unsettling study experience. Acetaminophen, it turns out, was effective in dulling emotional reactions to what Lynch had in store in his short-film Rabbits.
More than 300 student participants were recruited and offered either $15 or course credit for their time. In two different studies, participants were either given 1,000 mg of Tylenol-brand acetaminophen or a placebo, both packed in gel capsules. Because acetaminophen is hard to detect if a user isn’t actively experiencing physical pain, study subjects were unaware of which they took.
In the first study, 121 participants were asked to write two paragraphs about their feelings on death and then to respond to a hypothetical situation in which they judged the bail amount set for a prostitute. In the second study, 207 participants watched either a David Lynch movie—typically disturbing—or a benign video clip and then judged the punishment handed down for local rioters.
Both studies required participants to consider their mortality. And the Tylenol? It was effective in dulling the emotional reactions of participants who had to consider their mortality or watch a Lynch film, indicating that an OTC dose of acetaminophen is effective in limiting dACC reaction and feelings of anxiety.
“[Participants in the mortality-salience condition who had taken acetaminophen responded in ways similar to those who had not contemplated their mortality. In the second study, this pattern of findings was replicated using a surreal video clip,” the study authors concluded.