Placebo Effect (Topic#003)

Image of sunset Oct 2014

Image of sunset
Oct 2014

I’d like to share my personal views on the placebo effect. The placebo effect is basically when something happens solely because you believe it will happen. I’m going to use an old story I’ve heard as an example. There was a child with a wart on his foot. His doctor told him to rub a penny on the wart to make the wart go away. The child believed the doctor completely and rubbed his wart with a penny… and the wart went away. Pennies do not make warts go away in any scientific study, but the child’s belief in the penny and belief that this would work actually made it work.

So many people bad mouth the placebo effect. “Oh, it’s all in your head,” they say. The point I’d like to make to you is, was it really “all in his head” if it worked? And does it matter if it was “all in his head”?

If a woman consumes a certain vitamin for two weeks and finds that she has more energy, yet study after study disproves that particular vitamin to have any effect on energy, should you keep telling her that it’s all in her head? Does it really matter? It IS providing her with energy, whether or not the effect is caused by the vitamin itself or the mere act of consuming the vitamin daily. Now, if the substance she is consuming is actually unhealthy or toxic for her, or causing negative side effects, then perhaps it is more worth a conversation.

To bring this closer to my own experiences, I’ll bring up antidepressants again. I am taking antidepressants. There ARE compelling studies and groups of studies that show the particular antidepressant that I’m taking works just slightly more than a placebo (basically meaning a sugar pill) for depression. Yet here I am, alive day after day and learning to function better all the time. Does it MATTER if the effects are caused simply by the act of taking the strong medication? Yes, I experience side effects. Yes, there is a chance that the positive effects are not from the substance itself. But maybe you can go easy on me. Maybe you can understand that whatever helps, helps. Maybe it is the act of consuming a pill. Maybe it is knowing that the prescriber cares and wants to monitor how I’m doing. Maybe it is feeling like there is now a safety net underneath me. Maybe it is the knowledge that I’m doing all I can to stabilize myself. Maybe I believe so strongly that it will help me, that I actually start to get better. (This is all aside from the fact that just maybe the substance itself is having a positive impact on my body’s tendency toward depression.)

I believe in the placebo effect and I love the placebo effect and I believe it is an important part of life. I don’t believe it should be dissected and discarded and looked down upon. I don’t believe it should have the terribly negative associations that is has today.

Many people experience the placebo effect frequently without being aware of it. Think of how many times you can’t really prove that what you just ate or drank or inhaled is having whatever effect on you that you think it’s having? Say you eat a healthy meal and feel more clean and energized before it’s even had a chance to digest. Or you break a spiral light bulb and breathe in the vapors while cleaning it up, and immediately begin to feel ill. There are stories about people in aircraft feeling ill because someone else on the plane is ill. It’s part of being human.

Yet the opposite is also true. So many people are so scared of the placebo effect and people’s judgement that they claim the opposite no matter what they feel. They could have drank enough alcohol to bring down a horse but still they claim they feel nothing. They are afraid to look like a fool by acting out on something that could turn out to be “all in their head”.

Our minds do have an effect on our bodies. I don’t believe you have to be so ashamed when it happens to you. When I was little, I had problems with constipation. My mom used to give me lettuce and said it would make me go to the bathroom. I believed her completely and I ate the lettuce while sitting on the toilet. And I went to the bathroom. Do you really believe that makes me a weak-minded person? Or maybe I’m just human.

I’m not suggesting you believe in every claim or ad. I’m not suggesting you believe in magical thinking. I just want to encourage you to let your mind be a little bit open and be less afraid of the placebo effect. If you’re affected by something, don’t be so scared and tense and worried that it might just be “all in your head”. Maybe that’s the point! Maybe it is helping because you believe it’s helping and that’s a good thing!

I wholeheartedly support the placebo effect and believe it should be welcomed and embraced and accepted as a valuable part of the human condition.


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