During moments of stress or anxiety, some people can become overwhelmed by their emotions and become extremely agitated or nervous or volatile. This irrational behavior often takes on a life of its own, causing others to become concerned about a person's ability to cope with his or her circumstances. At a time like this, a concerned bystander may suggest that he or she take a chill pill and relax. A chill pill is a generic reference to any sedative or anti-anxiety medication which has a calming or emotionally numbing effect on its recipient.
Many people are asked to take a chill pill after making irrational demands on others or delivering an emotionally charged rant not commensurate with the situation at hand. An employer who berates an employee over a minor issue may need to take a chill pill, for example. An anxious parent issuing numerous rules and regulations to a teen driver may also be asked to take a chill pill. Taking an actual sedative or a five minute sanity break could help someone regain perspective on a stressful situation.
There are a number of prescription medications which would qualify as a "chill pill," although the expression could just as easily apply to an imaginary form of sedation which promises instant results. The suggestion, or in some cases the imperative, to take a chill pill is generally intended to shock the irrational or overly emotional person back to his or her senses. Once a person becomes too emotionally charged or tightly wound during a discussion, meaningful dialogue can become problematic.
The modern concept of a chill pill may trace back to the 1950s and 1960s, when prescription sedatives and tranquilizers such as Valium become more commonplace. The Rolling Stones song "Mother's Little Helper," for example, referred to a prescription sedative a number of housewives took in order to cope with their demanding suburban lifestyles. The idea of taking powerful sedatives or anti-anxiety medications in order to "chill out" or unwind became very popular during the 1970s, and by the 1980s many people were taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications regularly to combat stress.
The expression take a chill pill has been a popular expression for several decades, and has been used as a comedic catchphrase over the years. On the sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live for example, comedian Dana Carvey's Asian pet store owner character would routinely advise his overwrought customers to take a chill pill after telling them why chickens made such lousy house pets. Modern sitcoms often include scenes where an overly anxious parent or boss is told to take a chill pill, chill out or simply chillax.
Considering the stresses and pressures that often accompany day-to-day life, the suggestion to take a chill pill may not be such a bad idea once in a while.