Fantastic Friday: Placebo Effect

I’ve been guilty lately of neglecting my Fantastic Friday posts. My daughter, now a two-year-old, did not sleep through the night until 15 months old. The lack of sleep forced me to cut back on some of my activities, and for some reason, the Fantastic Friday post was one of the easiest things to let go.

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Which got me thinking: why is it so easy for humans to give up on the positive? Why is it much easier for us to dwell on the negative? It’s the reason I started the Fantastic Friday posts in the first place: positivity can spread, but negativity spreads much more quickly.

Even though I haven’ t been posting regularly on Fridays, I have been clipping articles and stories that I want to post about. One of them is from the December 2016 issue of National Geographic. The  cover story focuses on the healing power of faith, examining several examples: an American man with Parkinson’s disease whose symptoms improved remarkably after he participated in a trial for a new treatment—even though he had been given only the placebo. The Ashaninka people of Peru, who use vapor from boiling herbs in their healing practices and who use ritual songs to promote healing. Burjos in Mexico. Even in clinical settings, things like music in the waiting room and white coats are all referred to as part of the “theatre of healing” and help our bodies manage expectations.

The article provided some explanation for the placebo effect. For one, patients improve even when told they are taking a placebo. The article notes that a supportive relationship—one shown between practitioner and patient even during a placebo trial—is important. Positive attitude accounts for much. When we expect to be healed, our brains seem to work to make our bodies produce elements that heal us. Part of healing is about conditioning: experiments in rats show that it’s possible to train the body to respond to medicine even if a medication hasn’t actually been administered. Further experiments show the impact of social expectations: the more others believe something, the more we do as well.

The article concludes with a look at many of the religious pilgrimages practiced throughout the world and the many cases throughout history of people being healed after journeying to a place of religious significance.

With a second baby on the way, I had to repeat several tests that didn’t work out that well with my daughter. I could literally feel my body tensing up and feeling terrible and sick—even though the day before the test, I’d felt great. The article calls this the “nocebo” effect: the belief that something bad will happen, and the body actually responding to make it so. I passed all my tests just fine and have since re-grasped a positive outlook. But it just goes to show: negativity is so easy to spread and so harmful in many ways.

I’ll be back weekly with my Fantastic Friday posts in an effort to spread positivity: the more people who believe in spreading the positive, the more it will spread. And I hope, once again, to contribute positivity to my little corner of the internet.

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