The Nocebo Effect: How Negative Thoughts Can Harm Your Health
Most of us have heard of “the placebo effect”—the heal-inducing effect patients in clinical trials experience when they believe they’re getting a fancy new drug or surgery but are actually getting fake treatment. The placebo effect is real. It works about eighteen to eighty percent of the time, and it’s not just in your head—it actually dilates bronchi, heals ulcers, makes warts disappear, drops your blood pressure, and even makes bald men who think they’re getting Rogaine grow hair!
Unwanted Side Effects
But the placebo effect has a shadow side. The same mind-body power that can heal you can also harm you. When patients in double-blinded clinical trials are warned about the side effects they may experience if they’re given the real drug, approximately twenty-five percent experience sometimes severe side effects, even when they’re only taking sugar pills.
Those treated with nothing more than placebos often report fatigue, vomiting, muscle weakness, colds, ringing in the ears, taste disturbances, memory disturbances, and other symptoms that shouldn’t result from a sugar pill.
Interestingly, these “nocebo” complaints aren’t random; they tend to arise in response to the side effect warnings on the actual drug or treatment. The mere suggestion that a patient may experience negative symptoms in response to a medication (or a sugar pill) may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you tell a patient treated with a placebo he might experience nausea, he’s likely to feel nauseous. If you suggest that he might get a headache, he may. Patients given nothing but saline who thought it was chemotherapy actually threw up and lost their hair!
When You Think You’re Going to Die
In another study, patients about to undergo surgery who were “convinced” of their impending death were compared to another group of patients who were merely “unusually apprehensive” about death. While the apprehensive bunch fared pretty well, those who were convinced they were going to die usually did.
Similarly, women who believed they were prone to heart disease were four times more likely to die. It’s not because these women had poorer diets, higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, or stronger family histories than the women who didn’t get heart disease. The only difference between the two groups was their beliefs.
The nocebo effect is probably most obvious in “voodoo death”—when a person is cursed, told they will die, and then dies. The notion of voodoo death doesn’t just apply to witch doctors in tribal cultures. The literature shows that patients believed to be terminal who are mistakenly informed that they have only a few months to live have died within their given time frame, even when autopsy findings reveal no physiological explanation for the early death.
Dr. Steve’s Story
In response to what I said in my latest TEDx talk about the placebo effect’s evil twin, “the nocebo effect,” L. Chas sent me an email, telling me the story of her brother Steve, who was a physician diagnosed with the exact same illness that was his specialty. When he was diagnosed with malignant tumors in both lungs, his doctors told him that he had five years to live, and knowing what he knew about the disease, Steve believed this.
Exactly five years later, to the day, he was snorkeling in Maui when he was found unconscious on the shore. Steve was resuscitated, but he had been without oxygen to the brain for over four minutes and wound up in a coma until his family chose to withdraw life support.
L. Chas wrote, “More than anything else, I think my brother believed that, when diagnosed with his disease, a patient has ‘five good years left.’ Just as you’ve said in your videos: the nocebo effect. So sad it had to go this way.”
Every time your doctor tells you that you have an “incurable” illness or that you’ll be on medication for the rest of your life or that you have a five-percent five-year survival, they’re essentially cursing you with a form of “medical hexing.” They don’t mean to. They’re not trying to harm you. They know not what they do.
Doctors think they’re telling it to you straight, that you deserve to know, that you should be realistic and make arrangements, if necessary. But when they say such things, they instill in your conscious and subconscious mind a belief that you won’t get well, and as long as the mind holds this negative belief, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you’ll never recover, you won’t.
The Moral of This Story
After reading through the 3500+ case studies documented in the medical literature in the Spontaneous Remission Project, which was compiled by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, I now believe there’s no such thing as an incurable illness. If you or someone you love is suffering from a “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal” illness and you want to optimize the chance for spontaneous remission, you have to start by cleansing your mind of any negative beliefs that will sabotage your self-healing efforts. My upcoming book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself offers tips for how you can change your negative beliefs to positive ones in order to optimize your chances.
What Do You Believe?
Do you believe you’ll be on meds for the rest of your life? Are you resigned to the prognosis your doctor gave you? Or are you motivated to try to activate your body’s innate self-repair mechanisms by shifting your beliefs from negative ones to positive ones?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
With faith in your journey,
Lissa Rankin, MD is the creator of the health and wellness communities LissaRankin.com and OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.
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