Relieving Existential Anxiety

Psychologists hypothesize Tylenol may relieve existential anxiety as well as physical pain.

New research shows Tylenol may have the unseen psychological side-effect of easing existential dread. The findings suggest anxiety about finding meaning in life and feeling physical pain may be rooted in the same part of the brain.

“When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they’re feeling may actually be painful distress,” said study researcher Daniel Randles, a doctoral student in psychology the University of British Columbia.

“We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress,” Randles wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Previous studies have shown that acetaminophen may also ease the blow of social snubs, and some researchers have argued that both physical pain and feelings of rejection are caused by activation in the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

“We’ve suspected that this brain region also is central in managing violations of expectations and errors, and as such predicted Tylenol would have the same effect on manipulations of uncertainty or existential unease that it has on headaches or ostracism,” Randles said in an email.

Admittedly the sample sizes are small, consist of pre-existing groups (such as college students), and the methodologies are… odd, but this research raises some interesting implications. My immediate thoughts, as per usual, go to the book Brave New World, which features the omnipresent drug Soma:

In the book, soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free “holidays”. It was developed by the World State to provide these inner-directed personal experiences within a socially managed context of State-run “religious” organisations; social clubs. The hypnopaedically inculcated affinity for the State-produced drug, as a self-medicating comfort mechanism in the face of stress or discomfort, thereby eliminates the need for religion or other personal allegiances outside or beyond the World State; the book describes it as having “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, none of their defects.”

Now this is the point in my post where I flail my arms and yell “We’ve arrived in the Brave New World, just as predicted!!!”

But seriously, I think this research, if true, reveals one more aspect of the trend in society where, instead of facing problems, we ignore them in the hopes that they’ll go away. We distract, we medicate, we divert, we do anything but actually build the emotional maturity necessary to face life’s difficulties because that would require experiencing unpleasant feelings and situations. And now we have one more tool to realize that goal, at least as far as the emotional implications of our actions and beliefs.

Or maybe I’m just old and grumpy.

1 thought on “Relieving Existential Anxiety”

  1. Ow! As a therapist, I’d recommend mindfulness over chemicals! Suggested readings…Drs. Tara Brach, Daniel Siegel, and Rick Hanson. Particularly recommend Mindsight by Dr. Daniel Siegel.

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