The placebo effect proves the power of mind. It reminds me of summer. On the one hand summer time and the living, is easy with lush flowers and ocean breezes. On the other hand, many people want to beat the heat. I suggest that we learn to get along with nature, reset our natural rhythm. Similarly, if you believe in a “magical” pill or treatment, most of the time you will improve. However, you might be surprised to learn that the contrasting dark side is also true, referred to as the nocebo response. In other words, when you are taking a sugar pill, you could experience the bad side effects related to the pill you believe you are taking according to the Harvard Mental Health Letter (May 2011).
Placebo and nocebo are flip sides. Placebo means, “I will please,” and nocebo means, “I will harm.” The mind, like the 17thcentury poet John Milton said, can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven. It turns out from double blind studies that our expectations about a medication or procedure could shape our experience. Consequently, how a doctor speaks to us can affect how the body will respond to the treatment. Even the color of a pill, our associations with that color – like blue symbolizing calm and red symbolizing energy, can trigger a specific response.
TV commercials know all about the placebo effect when they paint idyllic images of happy patients taking all sorts of medications and undergoing surgeries. They tap into the power of suggestion: You can feel happily relieved like these patients. In contrast, the nocebo effect is a little more complicated and less understood.
As a stress management specialist, I attribute the nocebo effect to stress hormones like cortisol which get activated by anxiety, sadness, disappointment or bad memories. The inflammatory process of stress is often internally driven based on perception both real and imagined. Since human beings have an innate negativity bias, stress hormones are unleashed depending on how pessimistic one is.
A visit to the doctor’s issue is stressful enough as evidenced by those who experience “white coat hypertension,” a temporary hike in blood pressure due to fear of the doctor. It would be great if physicians would be more diplomatic, but many are too stressed to have a warm bedside manner and can use upsetting words or baffling medical jargon. It would be great if the releases patients have to sign or the medications patients get filled wouldn’t have a list of all the terrible things which could go wrong, but legally one needs to be informed.
Therefore to direct your mind to a positive outcome
- Give yourself a positive suggestion. It’s like hypnotizing yourself. Imagine a successful outcome the way athletes do before a competition. People who do this consistently on a regular basis especially before surgery say that they need less anesthesia and experience less pain afterwards.
- Transform an old negative memory into a positive one. For example, parents are adept at giving their child’s nightmare a happier conclusion, transforming terror into security. Dr. Bernie Siegel advised his cancer patients receiving radiation therapy to image it as, “golden rays of healing.” This way patients flow with the healing process instead of fighting it.
- Act the role of an empowered patient. Don’t allow yourself to be objectified or spoken about in third person. If you feel your doctor is abrupt, disrespectful or negative, get another opinion. Your physician’s negative approach could actualize a nocebo. Find a physician who encourages you to partner your own healing.
Now let’s apply the placebo/nocebo effect to the non-medical potential accomplishments of your life. Might your belief system be getting in the way of achieving your goals? What would you do if you believed you could not fail?
Debbie Mandel, MA is the author of Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life, Changing Habits: The Caregivers' Total Workout and Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-management specialist, and mind/body lecturer. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WGBB AM1240 in New York and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com