How beliefs affect your health: The ‘nocebo’ effect

placeboYou’ve heard of the ‘placebo effect’, whereby your belief in something makes it work on a physical level. But what about the ‘nocebo effect’? This is the phenomenon when your beliefs that something will harm you actually does- even when the drug or treatment is harmless.

Recently, New Scientist reported on a miraculous case of a man seemingly taking an overdose of what he believed to be antidepressants. The man was taking part in a trial study and after an argument with his girlfriend, swallowed the 29 remaining tablets. Immediately fearing he might die, he asked a neighbour to take him to hospital, where he collapsed. His blood pressure dropped and he was breathing rapidly. He was tested and given treatment in hospital, but it was only when the doctor from the clinical trial arrived that things changed. He told the man that he had been in the ‘control’ group; the tablets he thought he had ‘overdosed’ on were completely harmless. Interestingly, the man’s blood pressure and heart rate returned to normal within 15 minutes, and he felt alert and well again.

So what happened here? The extraordinary effect of beliefs on our physical health is starting to become ever more apparent. Bruce Lipton, author of ‘Biology of Belief’, claims that over 1/3 of all healing is attributed to the placebo effect.

Could much of our ill health be attributed to us believing that something is bad for us?

Whether its food, sunlight, a drug, our lifestyle, many people have certain beliefs and expectations about what will cause ill health.

For example, if you’ve ever had a virus going round at work it seems to be pandemic- more and more people unconsciously expect ‘to come down with something’ very soon. Their beliefs may be effectively conditioning their body to produce those very same symptoms.

Psychologists Irving Kirsch and Guliana Mazzoni from Hull University decided to test out this theory. They asked a group of participants to inhale normal air, but told the participants that the air contained a suspected ‘environmental toxin’ , which was connected to nausea, drowsiness and headaches. Students who inhaled this air were found to produce those same symptoms compared to those who did not.

Studies in the nocebo effect have shown that doctors in particular have tremendous power over our expectations. There have been cases where doctors have misdiagnosed cancer patients and told them the cancer has spread and they only have months to live- and they die within months, before the unfortunate truth is revealed that the cancer had not spread after all.

What expectations do you have about your own well being?

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