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The Nocebo Effect - Are You Making Yourself Sick?

With our health and wellbeing, we are aware of what behaviours in life we need to do to keep ourselves well. Whether we do them or not is another thing, but for most of us, we know what could harm us.

But what if there was another factor that could determine our health and wellbeing? One that is overlooked, yet shown to have a powerful effect.

That what you know can hurt you.

In terms of health care, just “knowing” the negative effects of a diagnosis or intervention, can cause harm.

Most of us have heard of the placebo effect. When control groups given a sugar pill get compared with a group that is given the real deal. The control group are told that the placebo is real, and the results often show that they also experience an actual improvement in their symptoms, simply because they expect that the treatment will work.

Well the nocebo effect, is the lesser-known sibling of the placebo. This is the phenomenon in which inactive treatments or just suggestions can actually bring about negative effects in an individual. For some, being informed of a pill or procedure’s potential side effects is enough to bring on real-life symptoms.

So whilst the placebo effect is thinking yourself better, the nocebo effect makes us sick from thinking we are sick. Real adverse bodily changes as a result of how our mind is interpreting information.

The nocebo effect could explain many of our physical reactions to certain things. Feeling nauseous ourselves when someone close to us has gastro even when we don’t, becoming itchy because someone else is scratching or sneezing at the sight of a cat, rather than because of the cat. Becoming a Google Doctor and then experiencing more of the symptoms we are reading about.

Or even watching an ex-partner put needles into the spine of the voodoo-doll version of ourselves, and then feeling back pain. There is a lot to be said for voodoo magic. It’s the nocebo effect.

What if taking a harmless substance could make you sick? What if a fake dose of medication caused you to feel nausea and headaches? What if your doctor words a prognosis in such a negative way that it frightens you into actually making the sickness, or even death, happen.

Well it does happen, all the time.

If we believe it to be true, it is likely to become true. A nocebo is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but predicting the worst.

Participants in studies who are told that they might expect pain, get pain; treatments warning of erectile dysfunction, cause erectile dysfunction; asthma attacks getting turned on as well as people warned of allergies, get allergies. Even though the treatment doesn’t actually cause it. Other studies have found that those who believe they are prone to getting a disease being found to more likely die than those people with similar risk factors who didn’t believe. The brain can turn on and off all sorts of processes, particularly when it has been spooked. You subconscious turns the stress response in reaction to incoming information, so be careful what you listen to and believe.

So what does that mean for us in the real world. How can we use the learnings from the nocebo effect to benefit our own lives?

In terms of our own health care, keep positive. Don’t dwell on the negative outcomes, but rather focusing on how we are going to get well. Is reading the medical insert on our medications making us get the side effects, is the way our doctor speaking to us making us get worse, are our own negative beliefs about our treatment making it not work as well as it should? Is the expectation of our impending doom, going to make it come into fruition? It would serve us better focused to focus on our long healthy life ahead.

Reframing treatment outcomes as well as diagnoses and prognoses in a more positive light allows the subconscious to turn on parts of the body that heal. If our doctor doesn’t do it, we need to do it. Our body won’t heal if it is in stress.

So to protect ourselves from the nocebo effect, then we need to look further than our own interpretations.

If you are going to believe something, make sure it is something phenomenal. You never know, it might just happen.

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