The Placebo Effect
discover your heal-ability
Copyright… Kathie Strmota, LoveLight Co-Creative HealthCare
It is a common attitude that we are victims to illness and have little power over what happens to our bodies.
We get invaded by microbes, our tissues break down, fat layers build up, our hearts fail, our eyesight goes, our brain cells die, our blood pressure rises and falls, etc, and all the while we stand around helplessly wondering what’s happening ‘in there’.
The best we can hope is that some healthcare facility will have the right medicine for us when we need it.
This concept of ‘powerlessness’ in relation to your health is an illusion.
You have an immense degree of control over your body and it’s functions. After all, body functions are co-ordinated by the mind, and you are the mind. So who’s in charge here?
Decades of study into the ‘placebo effect’ have shown how the mind can affect major changes in the body, simply according to what it believes or expects.
What is the Placebo Effect?
Research into the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals, or other medical interventions, in curing disease generally involves dividing the research sample (of sick people) into two or three similar groups.
One group receives the drug; another group receives a pretend pill (sugar pill or similar), known as a placebo, and thinks they are receiving the drug; and the third group receives nothing at all.
In the case of medical interventions, such as a surgical procedure, for placebo participants the surgeons may simply cut the skin and pretend they’ve done the procedure.
Basically, placebo = pretend … make-believe which the person believes. But this belief is exactly what makes it real, with very real changes and outcomes in the ‘real world’.
This puts a lovely twist on our desire to place a well-defined line between what we call reality and what we call imagination or illusion. This changes from moment to moment as our beliefs change.
Your reality is exactly what you believe it to be.
Therefore, if you wish to change your reality, you simply need to change your beliefs and expectations about what that can be.
In the early days, when the placebo effect was first identified within drug research trials, it was perceived in a derogatory manner, as an interference to the research. If people on the placebo were getting the same level of improvement, simply because they believed they were taking the drug, as those who were actually taking the drug, it didn’t give the pharmaceutical companies much to crow about as it showed the specific chemical functions of drug itself to be superfluous.
People only needed to think they were taking the drug. They didn’t actually need to take it. And there’s no money in that, is there?
Some time later, the light bulb came on. These people, who showed improvement on the placebo, were actually affecting their body physiology with their own thoughts and beliefs!
It took a while for the significance of this to sink in and, even though it’s still an inconvenience for pharmaceutical companies during drug trials, it began to be researched as a phenomenon in its own right.
Placebo proves to be more than just a ‘study control’
Through placebo studies, as well as studies in the fields of biofeedback and neuroplasticity, it has now been demonstrated that individuals can, both consciously and unconsciously, regulate very specific systems within their own bodies.
This includes such diverse processes as stomach motility, dermatitis, blood pressure, visual acuity, skin temperature, and immune cell function.
Here are a few examples of this amazing process:
In a commonly cited example of the placebo effect, a woman was given Ipecac, a powerful emetic (makes you vomit), but told it was a drug to relieve her severe nausea and vomiting.
She experienced relief of symptoms in twenty minutes, although she should technically have thrown up her dinner!
Her faith in what she was told about the drug’s effect brought about bodily changes.
In 1998, a literature review of 19 studies, covering about 1500 trials, into the treatment of depression found that placebo had about a 60% success rate in delivering spontaneous and lasting remission.
A meta-analysis of clinical trials for irritable bowel syndrome has estimated the placebo response as 40.2%.
A similar approach to the treatment of duodenal ulcer suggests a placebo healing rate of 44.2% in trials with a frequency of placebo administration four times a day, and 36.2% in trials with administration twice a day.
Other examples are 29.0% in the acute treatment of migraine, 26.8% in the treatment of reflux esophagitis, and 19.6% in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome.
‘Surgery as a placebo’, a well-known paper by Beecher, 1961, compares results of the once popular ‘internal mammary artery ligation’ for angina pectoris.
Some patients only received a bilateral skin incision (placebo) while others received the full procedure.
What resulted was that every single patient who received the placebo surgery, and 75% of patients who had the actual procedure, reported a decreased need for medication and an increased exercise tolerance. So the patients who had the surgery actually fared a bit worse!
All the placebo patients showed continued improvement after 6 weeks and those who remained in the study showed continued improvement after 6-8 months.
A 2004 article by Mike Adams describes an experiment where Parkinson's disease patients underwent a surgical procedure that transplanted human neurons into their brains. Half the patients had no neurons transplanted at all, having fake surgery and being told by their doctor that the neurons had been transplanted.
Even those patients who received the placebo showed significant improvements in brain and body function a full twelve months later.
The belief that they had the surgery was enough for them to expect the healing process to take place. Their bodies responded to this expectation and self-healing kicked in.
In a 1997 Canadian study of benign prostate enlargement, more than half of the men who got the placebo pills reported significant relief from their symptoms, including faster urine flow.
Researcher J. Curtis Nickel theorized that the patients’ positive expectations of the experimental drug’s benefits may have caused therapeutic smooth muscle relaxation by decreasing nerve activity affecting the bladder, prostate and urethra.
Some study participants on placebo also complained of side effects (sometimes called the nocebo effect), ranging from impotence and reduced sex drive to nausea, diarrhea and constipation.
The ability of the body to meet the expectations of the mind applies equally whether the effect is positive or negative. You get what you believe you will get.
In a review of cancer treatment studies, side effects of placebo treatment were reported in most of the trials. Side effects were very similar from one trial to another—nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, lethargy, dry mouth, diarrhea, and so on—and were present in about 10%–60% of patients. There was a similarity between the type, and incidence, of side effects in both the true treatment and placebo participants among the randomized trials.
Thus, having been informed of the potential side-effects of the trial drug, placebo participants created the expected responses within their body.
In an older study, this was demonstrated by a group of students who were allergic to poison ivy and were told they were going to have their arms rubbed with it.
When rubbed, more than 80% of the students’ arms reacted with the classic symptoms of poison ivy (itching, boils, redness, etc.) even though the plant used for the study was not poison ivy but a harmless shrub.
The students’ minds were creating the biological effects of poison ivy on their own.
The Power of Belief
The effectiveness of placebo relies on faith.
C.J. Peek, in the book “Biofeedback & Self-regulation”, defines faith in this way: “A person is said to have faith that something is the case when it doesn’t cross his mind to doubt it. Inversely, a person is said to lack faith that something is the case if it does cross his mind to doubt it, even if he eventually decides that it is the case.”
In other words, faith is about believing in the reality of something without waiting for it to be proven (scientifically or otherwise).
Doubt causes us to focus on occasional irregularities or apparent mishaps as evidence of inability or failure. Doubt reduces the energy available for success by placing a limit on what we can achieve.
Faith, in contrast, allows occasional irregularities or apparent mishaps to be viewed only as minor deviations to be ignored or corrected for. There is no question of a successful final outcome. It is a foregone conclusion. This attitude frees us up to reach the peak of our potential, whatever the situation.
In the case of our health & wellness, faith in our own ‘heal-ability’ releases limiting perceptions and allows us to attain a state of wonderful health.
Having faith in a particular treatment, procedure, or your own ability to heal, is a far more powerful healing agent than hope.
If you do not merely hope to be cured, but take it for granted that you are cured, you cannot help but be cured.
Define your Expectations
Affirmation & Visualisation can have as much an impact on our health as in any other part of our lives.
Use these techniques to help your body heal by giving it directions about what you expect it to do and how you expect it to operate.
Affirmations are verbal statements or thoughts. The way you describe your life or physical symptoms sets up the programmed expectations your body will respond to.
Phrases like ‘I have a splitting headache’, ‘I’m all wound up’, ‘I’m worried sick’, ‘she gives me a pain in the neck’, ‘it gives me the shits’, ‘the pain is crippling’ or ‘this will be the death of me’ all affirm and reinforce a negative physical outcome.
What you need to do, both when you’re well and when you’re sick, is to affirm the positive … ‘I feel great!’, ‘my body is strong’, ‘I’m in perfect health’, ‘I can overcome anything’, ‘I’ll be fine’, etc. Even when you refer to your illness, try to view it and speak about it in the most positive light … ‘I have a little headache but it will pass soon’, ‘there is some pain but it’s nothing I can’t handle’, etc.
As hard as this is, when you’re in the middle of a difficult illness, it is a very powerful support to the healing process.
Expect nothing less from the people around you as well. To hear positive affirmations from others, about your health, increases your ability to bring these situations into reality.
The last thing you need is people treating you like an invalid and reinforcing your weakness. There is a big difference between supportive care – giving you assistance where it is needed – and treating you like a sick or incompetent person.
Creative visualisation adds imagery to these affirmations of your positive expectation, making the effect even more powerful.
From the body’s perspective, there is little difference between what we see inside our minds and what we observe in the world outside. The body will respond equally to both levels of stimuli. The only limitation lies in what you believe is possible.
In the book, The Healing Brain (1988), Ornstein & Sobel describe an experiment with cancer patients who engaged in visualisation for a year, perceiving their immune system as a fighting force attacking cancer cells.
These people showed increased lymphocyte, antibody, and Interleukin 2 (IL-2) production, as well as greater NKC (natural killer cell) activity; and the increases were positively correlated with the amount of visualisation people engaged in.
This shows that repeated visualisation reinforces the direction you give your body. At the same time, giving yourself a repeated message of success helps you strengthen your belief in it.
Seeing yourself as whole, recovered, and in perfect health, can give your body a clear directive about what you expect from it.
Imagine increased blood flow to damaged or diseased areas, bringing lots of oxygen and wonderful nutrition, and taking away all waste products.
Imagine your immune cells, strong, efficient, and in great numbers, travelling exactly where they need to go. See them dealing easily with any infectious agents, removing them completely from the body. See them cleaning up any damaged or diseased tissues, and stimulating the growth of new healthy tissue.
Imagine your joints as fluid, flexible and pain-free. Imagine your muscles as becoming stronger each day. Imagine your brain receiving, retaining and integrating information easily and efficiently. Imagine your eyes focusing easily on the closest insect and the farthest tree.
Be creative. Make your visualisations and expectations relevant to your particular situation and needs.
You don’t need to have a clear understanding of physiology to do this. You can create your own symbolism. (I often make little cartoon characters in my mind to represent the different groups of cells). It’s really about having a clear intention and giving your body clear direction. The imagery is just a way of focusing energy on that message.
We have a tendency, when feeling unfamiliar pain or receiving an unpleasant diagnosis, to let our imaginations run wild with negative images and possible outcomes, fuelled by our fears and fancies.
This is still the application of visualisation and affirmation, but their wonderful power is being directed towards a negative outcome.
Try to avoid this as much as possible. Your best hope for healing is a belief in your ability to heal and repeated directives to the body to do just that.
Don’t buy into social or medical expectations.
Believe in your own ability to overcome.
Affirm it verbally.
Reinforce it visually.
Feel it within you.
Allow your faith in a positive outcome to power your own heal-ability.
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Lipowski, Z.J., Lipsitt, D.R. & Whybrow, P.C., (eds), 1977, Psychosomatic medicine, Oxford University Press, New York
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