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The Nocebo Effect: Can You Think Yourself Sick?

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The Body is Not A Textbook

When it comes to healing the body, I’m the type practitioner who believes it’s more an art form than a science, but only because I’ve witnessed what happens when we reduce the body to a textbook.

 

You see, for many years, I made my body a textbook. I figured the more I knew the better, and set out to learn everything I could about the intricacies of internal human landscape as I worked to heal my own debilitating conditions. I was the woman “doing everything right,” by all evidence-based standards, but who was still mired in fear, doubt and a host of physical ailments that left me hanging by a thread. And, not only was I caught in this puzzling web of confusion, but I still see it time and time again in my practice in women dealing not only with whatever diagnoses or host of symptoms they’re plagued with, but also burn out from all the routines, rituals, supplements and protocols of which they’re strictly adhering.

 

To be fair, these prescriptions and recommendations are helpful. For short term data-collection, plans and supplemental support can absolutely be useful, and I’ll never be one to refute the power of cleansing leafy greens or gut-healing bone broth. Yet, ultimately, finding out what the body needs to repair itself requires more than a pantry full of vitamins and piles of expensive doctor bills. Rather, it requires a gentle, subtle tuning in that starts with our beliefs about it’s ability to do so.

 

Many of us have heard of the placebo effect in medicine and health, but less so the Nocebo effect. While the placebo effect demonstrates the positive correlation between the mind-body connection (the body’s ability to heal itself), the nocebo effect points to it’s negative implications. Essentially, the nocebo effect is a branch of mind-body healing dedicated to understanding the correlation between the negative beliefs we hold about our body and how they manifest physically and mentally.

 

What I I want to discuss in this post is how certain beliefs and thoughts you may harboring could be holding you back from that which you want – to live a healthy, free and happy life.

 

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

 

The mind is powerful, this we know. But just how powerful is less charted territory, particularly because our Western medicine culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for anecdotal, or what is often termed woo-woo, evidence. Without good hypothesis and proof, we don’t consider research like that to be valid. And we certainly don’t find clinical evidence to be enough to constitute fact. Meaning that just because I see something repeated in my practice, doesn’t mean it’s true. But, nonetheless, when all else fails and we’ve tested every lab imaginable with no movement toward improvement, its worth looking into what else could be causing the block.

 

Enter: Mind-body healing. Unfortunately, it’s still last on the list for most people after all other efforts have failed, but then again, I don’t really care how you got here, only that you did.

 

To demonstrate the Nocebo Effect in action, let’s take a look at a few examples that have been recorded throughout the years:

 

·      In a controlled study done for a new chemotherapy drug, control patients were given saline water as their placebo, yet 30% of them lost their hair.

 

·      In another study, control patients were given a sugar pill they were told could cause nausea. 80% of them vomited.

 

·      Patients on antidepressants who were reporting a decrease in depression were told they would be getting randomized placebos – meaning they may or may not be continuing their medication. Both patients who continued their medication, and those on the placebo, reported a returning and worsening of symptoms.

 

Now, these are just three of many studies done on the same topic, but they aptly showcase what I mean when I say “the mind is king.” In other words, what you think you shall see. NOT what you see, you shall think.

 

Our brain’s ability to construct our reality is real, and worth examining if we find ourselves unable to kick certain illnesses, symptoms, beliefs, patterns or conditions.

 

How to Know If The Nocebo Effect is Affecting You

 

I often tell my clients to start out writing a list of things they believe to be true about their bodies. For example: If someone is struggling with chronic fatigue, they may list out beliefs like:

 

I’m always tired.

I can’t exercise without needing a nap.

I don’t’ sleep well.

I never know how my body will feel.

I’m just kind of a weak and sickly person. Always have been, always will be.

 

Someone who is trying and failing to lose weight may believe things like:

 

I can’t quit sugar, I’ve tried hundreds of times

Working out is really hard

I just look at food and gain weight

My love handles get bigger every year

My body was just built to be big

 

Bear in mind that these will vary depending on whatever it is you’re considering a struggle.

Then, after they’ve done that, I ask them to see how many on their list serve them well and how many do not. And by serve them, I mean are helpful to their healing. Most of the time, there are very few which serve them, and many, many that hinder their efforts and cause emotional responses like depression, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness and powerlessness.

 

When we get clear on what our beliefs about our body or condition or life circumstances are, it becomes easier to see what sorts of responses are resulting as a consequence. Simply put, if I wake up everyday believing that I am tired and didn’t get enough sleep, that is what I will most likely find to be true day in and day out.

 

While the Nocebo Effect isn’t widely understood from a scientific viewpoint (it’s hard to get approval for studies that knowingly cause harm), some researchers point to the stress effect that negative beliefs or thoughts can have on the body and attribute the physical decline that occurs in response to the Nocebo Effect. In other words, your worrisome and stressful thoughts about your condition trigger a physical stress response in your body which causes all kinds of symptom manifestations.

 

Yet, this doesn’t necessarily describe the “how” behind the specificity like the cases listed above. But, whether or not we have a fully functional explanation, it’s clear to see that the mind plays a HUGE role in whether or not the body will be able to heal, and I see this in my practice often. Which is exactly why I believe healing the mind and body must be done congruently. When we talk about root cause medicine, we’re referring to finding the root of the problem and digging it out so to speak to the issue can resolve. When the root cause is a belief, that must be addressed as well and can start with something as little as being willing to notice the beliefs that are working for your benefit, and the ones that are not, and then working to replace them slowly.

 

Even a statement as tiny as, “I don’t know if my body will ever heal, but I’m willing to hold out hope,” can be enough to open up the door of possibilities previously closed to you by your unwillingness to see them.

 

We know that the power of the placebo effect is real and mighty and can lead to dramatic, spontaneous healings in the body and mind. With that said, it would only make sense that the opposite it true as well, in which case, paying attention to our daily, even moment-to-moment, thoughts about our life could and would be worthwhile.

 

Til next time,

Sy

 

 

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Cultivating Calm - A Look at Mindfulness Meditation


 

So, let’s face it, most people cringe when they hear the word meditation and they immediately think of a new-age, hippie fest where everyone talks about color auras and crystal healings. And hey, I’m personally all about those healing modalities, but I’m also in tune enough to know that they don’t resonate with a lot of people - and that’s just fine. However, I do truly believe that it would be a shame to miss out on all the amazing benefits and life-changing lessons that mediation has to offer just because we’re a little unsure of it’s tangible-ness. Yes, I make up words from time to time.

 

Meditation is a practice that dates back thousands of years which obviously gives it a significant place in history. Even more interesting is that there are multiple types of meditation, each bringing a unique experience to the meditator. In our discussion today, we’ll be covering one of my favorite practices called Mindfulness Meditation, or formally MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) which calls the practitioner to a state of present awareness.

 

One of the main concerns people have when beginning a practice is that they can’t shut off their brains or sit still without wanting to move. They assume that because they have these feelings they aren’t a “good” meditator. What I want to bust through today is the idea that there are good and bad meditators. Meditation is not, in fact, about turning off your thoughts but rather about coming face to face with them and sitting with them – in some ways, nailing ourselves to the present moment so that we are forced to stop running and just BE with whatever is present for us in that moment. It is from this platform, based in reality, that we actually gain the power to shift and change our circumstances.

 

In our society, we are afraid of stillness. We work like madmen, we run the kids around to a million different activities, we do chores and schoolwork late into the night, we exercise like we hate ourselves, we grab a diet coke and chocolate to get us through the afternoon and we text, call and scroll all day long. Then, as nightfall drifts in, when we’re physically and mentally exhausted, we turn on the TV or Netflix to drown out the last bits of piercing, uncomfortable silence we’ve been running from all day before we fall into a restless, unsatisfying sleep. If we sit in stillness, it’s as if all of a sudden we can’t stop the influx of thoughts. It’s as if meditation actually makes us think MORE, so we decide that all these crazy yoga people must not have stressful lives because how else could they possible turn off the relentless jibberish going on in the mind? Sound famililar?

 

Here’s the thing. Meditation and stillness do not actually bring up more thoughts. They simply allow space for what is already there to make itself known. If you’re mind and thoughts feel jumbled, hectic and chaotic when you sit down and notice them, I assure you they are that way all throughout your day. You’ve just gotten very adept and skilled at pushing them out of the way in favor of staying busy. And by busy, I don’t just mean that you are an a-type, go-getter who burns the midnight oil. I’m also talking about that nagging feeling to pull out your phone as your wait for a friend at a restaurant or while you’re in line to get a coffee. I’m talking about the need to fill the silence of an uncomfortable conversation with more talking. I’m referring to our inability to sit in pain and instead escaping our reality through a drink, drugs, sex, work, social media or any other mind-numbing activity. I’m talking about the habits we all fall into so easily that we don’t even consider them problematic.

 

So, you might be wondering what’s so wrong with this picture? Well, as you’ve heard me talk about hundreds of times, stress is harmful to the body. And the stress of unresolved, unnoticed or undealt with emotions can congest the body in physical ways. When we spend all our time running from our emotions and uncomfortable feelings, we never get to process them and let them go. They stay congested and buried deep in our souls just waiting to come out – and come out they will. The mind-body connection is a powerful tool for healing, but it is also a powerful promoter of imbalance and dis-ease if not tended to. We talk a lot about the healing power of food and all the tangible ways to attend to our health, like sleep and exercise. Less talked about, however, are the metaphysical, emotional and energetic modalities which I have found play an equal, if not more important, role in health and wellness. We spend so much time trying to think ourselves happy, calm and relaxed, but what if, instead, we just eased into the knowing space of meditation and let the rising and falling tides of our emotions do just that – rise and fall. Can you imagine the freedom that comes when you just let go? Your body certainly can as studies have shown that mindfulness meditation actually shrinks the part of the brain associated with fear, anxiety and stress by switching the nervous system over to a parasympathetic state – the state of Rest and Digest.

 

Anxiety, stress and worry are future based. Without thoughts of the future, these feelings don’t exist. What mindfulness mediation does is brings us into the present moment, effectively extinguishing these emotions. As we become better and better at bringing ourselves present in our meditations, new pathways in our brain bring this awareness into other areas of our life as well. We find ourselves slowing down, processing deeper, thinking clearer, speaking kinder. The tonic to busyness is not relaxation. The tonic to busyness is stillness. It is the yin to our modern day yang.

 

So, how does it work? Mindfulness meditation asks the practitioner to sit in awareness by focusing the mind on a ‘home base’ of sorts, which is usually the breath. See, and here you were worried about turning off your brain! No, actually, we are giving your brain something to focus on, something to hold on to as you watch all the thoughts pass by rooting you in what is happening here and now. When you first begin a meditation practice, it can feel pointless and chaotic. Know this is normal and fine. Stick with it and get past the first few clumsy attempts -This is when the real magic begins. Below I’ve outlined the steps to begin a mindfulness practice. However, I highly suggest working with a coach of some type who can walk you through all the potential questions or roadblocks you might come up on. There are also wonderful apps you can use that offer guided meditations. I personally love and use Headspace, but I’ve heard great things about Calm as well. If you’re more interested in going it alone, I also use an app called Insight Timer which simply times my meditation with the starting and finishing gong chimes.

 

Mindfulness Meditation

 

1.     Begin by sitting either cross-legged on a pillow or mat or sitting in a chair with both feet on the ground. If either of these are too uncomfortable for your posture, you may lie down.

2.     Close your eyes and take a few deep breathes. Notice how your body feels sitting on the floor or in the chair. Listen to the sounds around you.

3.     Begin to check in with your breath by noticing the breaths in, the pauses between and the breaths out. You don’t need to change your breathing, simply notice it’s normal pattern and the way it feels going in and out of your body.

4.     As you sit noticing your breath, thoughts will pop up and you may even get carried away by them. If you catch yourself being carried off by thinking, simply notice it, say the word “thinking” and gently come back to noticing your breath. Let the thought pass on by without giving it any more attention.

5.     Do this for 5-10 minutes a day to start with and be kind with yourself as you learn this new skill.

 

Remember, there are no good or bad meditations, only distracted and undistracted. The more time you spend in meditation, the more periods of un-distraction you will experience.

 

As always, I’d love to hear about your personal experiences with meditation and mindfulness. Comment below or find me over on social media and let’s chat!

 

Much love,

Sy

 

 

 

 

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