The Placebo Effect & Mind-Body Healing
Latin for “I Shall Please,” placebo, or the placebo effect, can be defined by measurable, observable or perceived improvement within a patient’s health or behaviour, not attributable to ‘faux’ medication or treatment that has been administered, which the patient believes to be genuine. Instead, sugar pills or saline solutions are used, which have no medical properties, along with faux surgeries and therapies. The subject of many scientific studies, the placebo effect is a psychosomatic phenomenon that demonstrates the power of the mind when it comes to healing, that the simple ‘belief’ of being treated with effective medication is enough for some patients to see improvements or be cured of their ailments altogether. Consequently, the power of the human mind when it comes to healing is often the subject of much discussion, as is the potential to harness it.
The Placebo Effect in Medicine
In some instances placebos are used by medical professionals to treat patients, with notable medical organizations endorsing such methods. As one would expect however, using the placebo effect has been controversial throughout history. The ethics when it comes to treating patients with placebos is still a subject of debate, due to the ‘deceptive’ way in which these medications are prescribed. A common counter argument for this however is that if the doctor himself believes in the placebo effect as a means of healing, then his morality is intact when he prescribes placebo to a patient. When the desired results are apparent however, then the placebo effect is ultimately embraced within the medical community. A vast array of studies carried out over the years has shown the placebo effect to be very effective. For example it can last up to eight weeks for panic disorder, two and a half years for rheumatoid arthritis, can treat mental illness such as depression, along with a whole host of physical conditions. One study conducted by Harvard University, tested the effectiveness of the placebo effect across a range of ailments, including chronic pain, asthma and arterial hypertension. 30 to 40% of patients reported relief after using a placebo. Whilst a complete cure isn’t necessarily common and improvements aren’t guaranteed with placebos, the studies are non-debatable evidence that the power of the mind is not to be underestimated.
Scientific Origins of Mind-Body Healing in the Western World
Throughout history there has been compelling evidence to support the minds ability to heal the body. Many medical practices of the ancient world, for example traditional Chinese medicine, emphasized and focused on the link between the mind and the body, where as western medicine was often the opposite – viewing the two as almost separate entities. Shaped by this, medicine in the western world eventually moved forward in 1964 when psychiatrist George Solomon noted that symptoms in those with rheumatoid arthritis got worse during phases of depression. Prompted by this discovery, he began to investigate the link between the mind and body, with a particular focus on inflammation and the immune system. Shortly after, psychoneuroimmunology was born. As the western world began to discover more and more about the links between the mind and body, it eventually sparked interest in ancient practices such as yoga, meditation and other alternative methods of healing and promoting health – which have a prominent place in our societies today.
Harnessing Mind-Body Healing
The placebo effect works on the basis that the patient expects to be cured. As human beings in modern times, we have long been conditioned to associate a pill, dose or medicine, surgery, or therapy as a means to make us better – because they can. However, as evidence shows so can our minds. The belief factor plays a huge part when using our minds to heal, and consequently this has given rise to things like healing crystals and Reiki, which would prove ineffective in those who don’t believe in them. Of course, whether the effectiveness of such practices is rooted in science or not is irrelevant – if they can be used as a tool to ‘harness’ the placebo effect, and work, then they are no less valid than conventional medical treatment for certain conditions.
A positive ‘mind over matter’ mind-set, entwined with the belief that one will get better, can also be a hugely beneficial mind-body healing technique. This has been noted many times in those overcoming physical and mental addictions, be it drugs, alcohol or cigarettes – sometimes even through treatments such as hypnosis, which can also yield the placebo effect. A study conducted by David Spiegal M.D at the Stanford School of Medicine demonstrated the healing power of the mind for more serious conditions. Over 80 women who were in the late stages of breast cancer took part in the study, half received normal medical treatment, whilst the other half received the same treatment but went to a support group as well. David Spiegal’s study found that the latter half, who attended the support group, went on to live for twice as long as those who didn’t. Other studies have come to similar conclusions – in particular, those that suffer ‘hopelessness’ whilst battling cancer, are often associated with having a lower chance of survival.
Harnessing the minds ability to heal the body is achieved through many ways. As noted above, methods such as Reiki, crystals, yoga, meditation, hypnosis, or other ancient practices long associated with their positive health and healing benefits can focus an individual’s ‘mind over matter’; whether they have a scientific basis and utilize the placebo effect or not. Because of this, their value and place in our society should be considered no less relevant than the conventional healing methods of today.
“The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.” – Hippocrates