We take acetaminophen to ease our physical aches and pains. But a new study from Canada suggests it could help to ease our anxieties about death, as well.
Without a doubt, the experience of pain extends beyond the physical. Most of us, when thinking about death, feel a sort of existential angst that is entirely unpleasant. We get this same sort of feeling when we’re uncertain, or after experiencing something that appears unreal.
Looking to see if standard over-the-counter pain medication can help, psychologist Daniel Randles and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia recently set up an interesting experiment to find out.
Before we get into the details, however, it’s important to note a central assumption made by the psychologists. Previous studies have shown that, when the meaning of our lives are threatened, or when we’re faced with thoughts of imminent death, we tend to reassert our basic values as a kind of coping mechanism (what’s referred to in psychology as compensatory affirmation).
It’s derived from the meaning maintenance model (pdf), and it says we need to perceive events through a spectrum of expectations that fit in with our perceptions of the world. When our sense of meaning is threatened, we reaffirm alternative representations as a way to regain meaning — a process termed fluid compensation.
Randles used the MMM as a kind of metric to assess the degree of existential angst experienced by his test subjects.
For the double-blind study, Randles had a group of volunteers take either a standard Tylenol or a sugar pill. One group was told to write about what would happen to their body after they die (an attempt to elicit existential dread), while the other group was told to write about dental pain (unpleasantness, but nothing too dramatic).
Then, the volunteers were asked to read an arrest report about a prostitute and set an amount for bail.
Results showed that the dental pain people on the sugar pill gave low bail amounts, suggesting they didn’t need to assert their values (i.e. no compensatory affirmation). The “existential angst” control group, on the other hand, demanded a higher bail (which was expected).
But for the group of existentially-minded volunteers who had taken Tylenol, they were not nearly as harsh in setting bail — a difference the researchers attributed to the drug. They concluded that a person’s need to cope was alleviated by the acetaminophen, and that the Tylenol inhibited the neural mechanism that responds to meaningful threats.
Similar results were shown in a separate experiment in which surrealist films — films designed to create a sense of unease or confusion — were shown to the volunteers.
The researchers caution that further research, along with clinical trials, needs to occur before acetaminophen should be considered a safe or effective treatment for anxiety.
Read the entire study at Psychological Science: “The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen Reduces Compensatory Affirmation Following Meaning Threats.”
Supplementary source: Psychological Science.