Friday, November 6, 2009

Think Sick—Be Sick: The Nocebo Effect

Some call it the “placebo’s evil twin.” But the nocebo effect is real, and it really can make you sick. While a placebo effect (Latin for “I shall please”) refers to health benefits produced by a treatment that should have no effect, people experiencing a nocebo effect (Latin for “to do harm”) experience the opposite. They presume the worst health-wise, and that’s what they get.

A nocebo response occurs when the suggestion of a negative effect leads to an actual negative outcome. Patients who expect distressing side effects before taking a medication or from a procedure are more likely to develop them. But the nocebo effect is more than just the power of suggestion—it can lead to actual physical consequences. The stress alone created by the nocebo effect can actually have a long-lasting impact on a person’s overall health.

Why are we even talking about the nocebo effect? Why would anyone want to put someone in a negative frame of mind that can result in an adverse effect on health and well-being? Well . . . we do it to ourselves all the time. We tell ourselves, “It’s too hard to find time to become more physically active.” We tell ourselves, “We can’t lose weight; that we’ve tried and failed too many times.” We tell ourselves, “We are destined to be the way we are,” and we give up. All this negative self-talk becomes self-fulfilling.

But consider what happens when we practice positive self-talk. When we tell ourselves, “I am worth it. I can do this. I can make this happen,” guess what? We are, we can and we do.

Here’s one final question—or three: What do we do once we understand the placebo / nocebo effects and problems? Will we adjust our expectations accordingly? Can we defeat the effects of negativity by simply being aware of them? Maybe it all comes down to “mind over mind”—think well, be well.

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