The Placebo Effect

P is for Placebo

The Placebo Effect
Just a spoonful of sugar….

This series is an alphabetical exploration of 26 options for living well, despite everything. It answers the question–How can we live well, despite problems?

Placebos work!
A person wants to lose weight, so she takes a pill before every meal. It’s advertised to suppress her appetite. She doesn’t know it, but the pill has no medically proven appetite suppressant. It’s sold as a “food supplement” and it’s made of inert ingredients, mostly sucrose and natural  coloring derived from beets. Still, she definitely feels less hungry after she takes it. She eats less and loses weight. (This is a true story about a supplement produced in Europe in the early 1990’s, told to me by the woman who worked on the team which invented it. They made a lot of money for their company).
What’s going on?
It’s the mysterious placebo effect. An immaterial thought acts on, and changes, the way a material body behaves. The woman believes the pill suppresses her appetite; her belief changes her appetite and her health.
By the power of sheer conviction, the placebo effect transforms belief into reality, and not because people are gullible.
This is the miracle of faith.
Placebos can heal illness, cure depression and anxiety, reduce fatigue, mend broken hearts and give courage to cowards. Placebos have even diminished the effects of serious illnesses like Parkinson’s.
The placebo effect is not an illusion. Placebos produce measurable physiological effects–changes in heart rate and blood pressure, chemical and neurobiological changes in the blood and nervous system.
The placebo effect proves that the mind and body are not separate, but indivisible.
If I believe doing something is going to make me feel better, doing that thing will make me feel better.
In building a life that is authentically good, I’m going to use every tool in my comfort box, including the Placebo Effect.
Be it resolved: I shall believe in what I’m doing!
Which means I’m not going to do anything, take anything or participate in anything I don’t believe in.
This is so simple, it’s ludicrous. I need to stop thinking that nothing is going to help, nothing is going to work, nothing is going to get better. I have to believe that wisdom-inspired actions–eating well, being joyfully active, resting, minimizing stress, learning, growing, laughing, loving, and counting my blessings–are good medicine, which will improve my quality of life.
Amen? What do you believe will improve your life?
See also J is for Just-Do-It!

37 thoughts on “P is for Placebo”

    1. Exactly! Here’s the song the White Rose resistance movement sang (when they were standing up against the Nazi’s).
      Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
      They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
      No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
      with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
      I think what I want, and what delights me,
      still always reticent, and as it is suitable.
      My wish and desire, no one can deny me
      and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!
      And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
      all these are futile works,
      because my thoughts tear all gates
      and walls apart: Thoughts are free!
      So I will renounce my sorrows forever,
      and never again will torture myself with whimsies.
      In one’s heart, one can always laugh and joke
      and think at the same time: Thoughts are free!

  1. I find the placebo effect fascinating. The one thing I need to improve my life at the moment is to stop procrastinating the jobs I don’t like doing like decluttering and paperwork. Any tips?

    1. I don’t like those tasks either, Julie. So, block out a few hours of “me time” then I pour myself a nice cup of herbal tea, put on some soothing, relaxing music, something I can hum or sing along to, turn off the phone, and dive in slowly. Pretty soon my natural love of order kicks in and I’m decluttering and filing without even thinking about what I’m doing.
      And I schedule time for those tasks twice/month, in the morning, before the day gets away from me. I’ve been doing that for about six months now, and having the routine (the knowledge that “this is what I always do on the first and third Wednesdays of the month”) makes it happen.

  2. I full heartedly believe in the power of the placebo effect. The mind is truly powerful and it works in sync with the body. It’s so important to truly believe in everything that your doing. If I’m checked out of a project at work my actions soon follow suit. Lately I’ve been trying to take my exercise more seriously and believe in the positive results of a regimen.

    1. You’re so right. I’ve seen people exercise while watching television, and their minds are not focussed on what they’re doing. They just don’t get the results. Why bother doing something, if we’re not even “there?”

  3. My placebo is positive affirmations. As on older beginning violinist, I tend to expect myself to learn faster and play better than I am personally capable of. At my most recent lesson, my teacher caught me putting myself down and gave me an assignment to re-frame my put-downs into positive statements. Instead saying “Oh, that was way off-key”, I am to say “My intonation on that phrase was much better”, or whatever positive I can find about it. There is always something, like the first time I played in church and said “I didn’t faint or throw up”! Well, actually, I did play quite well that day, and received a lot of compliments! Oh, and I am seeing improvement in my playing by giving myself a nice pat on the back each time!

    1. Yes! We simply can’t do what we don’t believe we can do. And discouragement means exactly what it says — it takes away our courage to try, to risk!
      Keep on encouraging yourself, Darlene! It’s exciting to see you grow and develop your talent. You’re an inspiration.

  4. It’s true. Even researchers will happily admit that as a medical treatment, placebo is downright effective. So, then, maybe we should skip the middle person from time to time when the problem is fixable without the aid of drugs.
    I am always reminded of the old joke:
    Patient: Doctor, you have to help me! My arm hurts whenever i do THIS (raises his arm awkwardly).
    Doctor: Then don’t do THAT.

    1. Definitely skip the middle person. I’m not sure why the notion of a potion (pill, elixir, formula), prescribed by a “professional” gives people more confidence to cure themselves. It’s a lack of trusting oneself, perhaps?
      I love that old joke. Speaks of the common sense from a past era, much of which has been lost, I fear.

  5. But surely the placebo only works if you don’t know that it is one. So you’re not really using the power of your mind, just being fooled by something that has been suggested by someone else. I think it’s a good idea though. We recommend Rescue Remedy to our exam nervous students. It’s a floral remedy, very weak but a squirt on the tongue works wonders.

    1. Yes, it only works if you don’t know it’s basically a fraud. But doctors know–that if their patients demand a prescription, they probably won’t get better unless they’re given a prescription. Not all of the over-prescribing problems are the fault of doctors…
      I’ve never heard of rescue remedy. Sounds like a great idea. 🙂 Maybe I could market something similar here…. (except I’d feel like a fraud, and I hate feeling like a fraud!) 🙂

  6. The placebo effect can work FOR us or AGAINST us, that’s for sure, Tracy. The progression of your examples is excellent.
    When I was a debate coach, just before a stressful match I sent the debate teams to the stairwells or quiet places in the hallways. They learned that deep, smooth breathing and applying and holding pressure to the stress point on one hand between the thumb and first finger–focusing on how they wanted to present themselves during the debate–really helped.

  7. Tracy … Years ago, I was going to write a story for a newspaper on the power of those motivational videos to help you lose weight. I watched it three separate times … and, then, almost immediately after each viewing, I went to a nearby ice cream store and had an ice cream. No lie! 😉
    Our mind is a powerful tool. If people employed that, then a placebo would not be needed. I enjoyed your post. 😉

    1. The mind is indeed powerful, and mysterious.
      Medical placebos don’t work for me; it turns out I’m too cynical for them. But, I do believe in the power of belief and especially of affirmation. The words we say to ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we will become, are very, very powerful.
      So–the motivational video was a bust? It had exactly the opposite of it’s intended effect! 🙂 (or is that just because you’re always marching to the beat of the OTHER drummer)? 😉

  8. I like to think that I have a positive attitude and am open-minded. I include more than eliminate good forces in my life. I have always felt that if you think something will work out, it may work out better than if you had a negative outlook. That being said, my Dad went into chemo and radiation fully believing he would get well. He had no doubt in his mind, he still only lasted 4 months. Near the last week, he told me he wished he had known in the beginning that it would not work, the sickness and weakness was not worth it, he felt. This was thought-provoking… thanks for stimulating my mind!

    1. You bring up an important point — positive thinking only works when we’re talking about normal life stuff.
      It’s not fair to cancer victims, or other of those suffering from terminal illness, to insinuate that if they would only be more positive, they could overcome death.
      Those who overcome by positive thinking, weren’t terminal in the first place. And when a person is dealing with THAT kind of illness; they ought to be given the whole truth about their chances for survival with or without treatment.
      I’m so sorry you’r dad had to suffer, so. <3

  9. I remember reading about a study where a group of people were asked to pray for people they didn’t know, and who didn’t know they were being prayed for felt better.
    Even more surprising, nearly all those who offered the prayers also felt improved health
    There is more we don’t inderstand than do. You are quite right Tracy its about faith

  10. Love the post!
    As a physician, I can claim considerable familiarity with the placebo effect…it is true that placebos can cause release of endorphins (mood enhancing chemical substances in the body similar to morphine) and provide relief from pain and discomfort.

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