The Placebo Effect
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~ Rumi
A few weeks ago I broke a bone in my foot, just beneath the pinky toe. As I've been hobbling about this last little while, I've been reflecting on healing. How wonderful that a broken bone can heal, that a piece of liver can regenerate, that skin can heal over like new.
What is healing? What stops us from healing? How do we access healing more readily? These are questions that have brought me to a reflection on the placebo effect (and its nefarious antithesis, the nocebo effect).
The placebo effect in healing is a known phenomenon. According to Psychology Today, "the placebo effect is no small or insignificant statistical aberration. Estimates of the placebo cure rate range from a low of 15 percent to a high of 72 percent. The longer the period of treatment and the larger the number of physician visits, the greater the placebo effect...The placebo effect is seen as an important part of the healing process."
It is believed that endorphins supplied by brain chemistry may be responsible for the placebo effect. Endorphins are 40 to 50 times more potent painkillers than opioids. Whenever you are engaged in doing something you love, your brain is secreting endorphins.
So we have, in effect, a powerful substance within us that contributes to healing. And what we think affects our healing. If you're told that a drug will cure your headache, and you're given a placebo, there is a good chance that your headache will dissipate. This is NOT to say that we can think away illness such as cancer. But noticing what is going on in our minds can create an opening for healing to enter.
The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect. Here "the mere suggestion that a patient may experience negative symptoms in response to a medication (or a sugar pill) may be a self-fulfilling prophecy." (Psychology Today) There are recorded cases of people who had nothing seriously physically wrong with them, dying because they were erroneously told they were much more ill than they were.
It's known that with persistent chronic pain, the nervous system changes and ramps up the danger signals being sent to the brain (pain is the brain's response to danger signals). And everything feeds into the pain system - thoughts and emotions included.
How then, do we become more open to healing? Changing one's thoughts is not as easy as changing one's clothes. No matter how you may want to think positive thoughts, the negative ones may lie just below the surface, below the level of awareness. So here are some ideas that may help to make your path of healing a little smoother.
1. Practise mindful awareness. Even for just a few minutes a day, pause to notice and reflect. Notice that, whatever you are thinking and feeling, there is another part of you that is aware of your thoughts and feelings. You are this Awareness. You are not your thoughts and feelings. In the yogic tradition, contemplation of your deeper, inner Awareness is "svadhyaya" or self-study. When you begin to notice your thoughts as simply thoughts, the negative thoughts begin to percolate upwards to the light, and once you see them, you can begin to process the thoughts and the emotions that go with them. Often those negative thoughts have no basis in reality. But as long as they sit below your level of awareness, your brain thinks they're real, and they can have a real effect on the body-mind.
2. Become aware of what feels safe (not what IS safe; but what FEELS safe). There is a distinction here, because what feels safe is completely personal to you. You might feel safe jumping off a diving board into a deep swimming pool; while the very thought might send someone like me into a tizzy. A movement, such as raising an arm, that feels safe to one person may create feelings of anxiety in a person with a previous shoulder injury - and pain even after the injury has healed.
3. Do activities you enjoy. Practise activities and movements that feel safe. Practise often, and keep it fun. Those endorphins will reward you with powerful pain-killing effects.
I'd love to hear from you. What does healing mean to you? What has helped you on your path to healing?
Donna offers a holistic perspective on the relationship and healing of physical and emotional pain.