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Thinking Yourself Sick - The Nocebo Effect

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Most of us have heard about the placebo effect, however less is known about the nocebo effect. The placebo effect shows the positive correlation between our mind-body connection, our body’s ability to heal itself. However, what we are started to understand is that the opposite is also true, it’s called the nocebo effect.

The nocebo effect shows us the negative side of our mind-body connection. Essentially, it’s the connection between negative thought patterns and beliefs which manifest themselves mentally and physically.

The nocebo effect is due to psychological or psychosomatic factors which produce detrimental effects to your health, such as a negative prognosis or negative treatment expectations.

What is the Mind-Body Connection?

We all know that the mind is very powerful, although we probably don’t fully understand just how powerful it is. Science is starting to accept the mind-body connection, and there are already numerous studies about how stress, anxiety and negative thinking can affect your health. However, there’s still a long way before the mind-body connection is fully accepted and no longer termed “woo woo” or “pseudoscience”.

One study done shows how the nocebo effect can occur. Researchers compared two different placebos using two groups of people for treating their arm pain. The first group unknowingly received a sugar pill and the second group unknowingly received a fake acupuncture treatment using retractable needles.

The results from the fake acupuncture group demonstrated the placebo effect well, with the group reporting less arm pain. However, what was fascinating was how both groups demonstrated the nocebo effect. Both treatments were fake, however both groups reported negative side effects from their treatments.

The fake acupuncture group reported pain, swelling and redness after their treatment and the sugar pill group reported feeling sluggish, with some feeling so tired that they couldn’t get out of bed.

What is more fascinating about these “side effects” is that the groups experienced what they were TOLD they might experience after treatment. Oh, the power of suggestion!

Currently researchers have mostly been focusing on the mind’s ability to heal the body, the placebo effect. All clinical trials randomly assign patients to either a treatment group (with the real drug or treatment), or a placebo group (a fake drug or treatment). The patients do not know which group they are assigned to, and those in the placebo group often show improvement even though their treatment is fake. Simply because they believe they are taking the real drug.

However, along with this, people who take the placebo also report side effects such as nausea, pain or headaches. This is due to the warnings they receive. Both groups (placebo and drug group) receive the same information and the same warnings about possible side effects. This causes even the people in the placebo group to experience negative side effects simply because they expected it. This demonstrates the nocebo effect.

So how can this apply to ever day life? Do you have constant and ongoing negative thoughts patterns or beliefs such as;

  • I’m always tired.

  • I always catch 3 colds every year.

  • I’m always sick.

I have read many books on this subject and have learned an important lesson that many people don’t realise at first. It’s not so much the occasional negative thought that will suddenly make you ill, it’s more about something your truly believe. Those self-help books which make people believe that they should never have a negative though are ridiculous. You’re going to have negative thoughts, but you don’t have to believe them.

The nocebo effect is as real as the placebo effect, but it’s not something to fear. By being aware of which thoughts you choose to get caught up in, and truly believe, can change your perspective and may even change your health; hopefully for the better!

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