Lead author and Ph.D. candidate Daniel Randles and Professors Steve Heine and Nathan Santos of the University of British Columbia said the findings build on recent U.S. research that found acetaminophen -- the generic form of Tylenol -- could successfully reduce the non-physical pain of being ostracized from friends.
Randles and his team sought to determine whether the drug had similar effects on other unpleasant experiences -- in this case, existential dread.
In the study, participants took acetaminophen or a placebo while performing tasks designed to evoke anxiety -- including writing about death or watching a surreal David Lynch video -- and then were asked to assign fines to different types of crimes, including public rioting and prostitution.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found the people who took acetaminophen were significantly more lenient in judging the acts of the criminals and rioters -- and better able to cope with troubling ideas -- than the placebo group. The results suggested participants' existential suffering was "treated" by the headache drug, Randles said.
"That a drug used primarily to alleviate headaches might also numb people to the worry of thoughts of their deaths, or to the uneasiness of watching a surrealist film -- is a surprising and very interesting finding," Randles said in a statement.
The finding suggests acetaminophen might help reduce anxiety, but the researchers cautioned further research and clinical trials must occur before acetaminophen should be considered a safe or effective treatment for anxiety.