Beliefs Can Harm You – Official!

The Nocebo Effect and How to Protect Yourself

A New Scientist magazine article from 2009 discusses the Nocebo effect whereby a strong negative belief or expectation can cause illness or even death – especially if that belief comes from an authority figure. This is the opposite of the well-known Placebo effect, whereby a strong positive belief can result in symptom relief or healing.

Unfortunately, only the beginning of the article is now available to read unless you have a subscription, but here is a list of examples of negative beliefs causing harm cited in the article:

  • A man who fell seriously ill following a voodoo curse and was expected to die, until his doctor managed to convince him that the curse had been lifted – whereupon he recovered.
  • A man who died following a diagnosis of terminal cancer – a diagnosis which later proved to be wrong.
  • A participant in a drugs trial who took an “overdose” of the trial drugs and was admitted to hospital after collapsing with dangerously low blood pressure. He recovered as soon as he was informed that he was in the control group – the pills he had taken were “harmless”.
  • 60% of chemotherapy patients report feeling sick before the therapy starts.
  • In beta-blocker drug trials, the participants who had the real drug and those in the control group reported roughly equal levels of the drug’s negative side effects.

A more recent article in the Harvard Health Newsletter lists a number of other examples in which participants’ responses were altered by giving them either a Placebo or Nocebo or both. For example:

  • In one study, participants were informed that a mild electrical current would be passed through their heads and that this could cause a headache. Two-thirds of them reported getting a headache, even though no current was actually applied.
  • In another experiment, subjects were injected with salt water but told it contained an allergen, resulting in many of them exhibiting allergic symptoms. Then they were given a second salt water injection, and told it would neutralise the effect of the first injection – which it then did in many cases.

This powerful effect of belief, and the importance of being careful about what beliefs we expose ourselves to, won’t be news to those of us who have been around the field of self-development for a while. What makes it “news” is that the medical profession is starting to take it seriously at last.

These articles are based on the work of doctors and psychologists who are not “mavericks”  lured away from science to the “dark side” of alternative medicine. They come from respected institutions such as Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and Harvard Medical School.

Until recently, most of the medical profession has been dismissive of many alternative therapies and techniques, putting any results of those techniques down to “the Placebo effect”.

I’ve always thought this rather odd. If you accept that the Placebo effect exists, then you are also accepting that belief can play a part in disease and healing.

If the Placebo effect (getting better because you believe you will) exists, then surely the Nocebo effect (becoming ill because you think you will) can exist too. Which means that any technique which is able to enhance the Placebo effect, or reduce the Nocebo effect, must be considered a useful aid to healing, either by generally reducing fear and stress, or by addressing the negative beliefs directly.

In fact, the New Scientist article suggests this as a possibility, quoting a clinical psychologist who says: 
          “Hypnosis changes expectancies, which decreases anxiety and stress, which improves the outcome.”

Of course I would not want to suggest that belief and expectation is the only thing that influences the outcome of illness and disease. That would simply be making the equivalent but opposite error that the majority of the medical profession has been propagating for so long (that belief has no effect).

Surely the truth is somewhere in between: that physical illness can respond to physical treatment, but that our beliefs and expectations can influence how we respond to both the illness and the treatment. Belief is not the whole story, but it can be a significant factor, and therefore deserves to be taken seriously and acted upon.

So, what action can you take to minimise the harmful effect of negative beliefs, especially concerning physical illness?

1. Start noticing what you believe and what beliefs are being offered to you.
Do you think you’ll live to a certain age or die of a certain illness just because that’s what your parent(s) did? Have you already been told, or read somewhere, that you are at increased risk of a certain condition? Do you feel you’re more likely to catch a cold because you used public transport? Just becoming conscious of what you believe can often be enough to begin the process of questioning it or letting it go.

2. EFT any negative beliefs that you find (or are presented to you).
Reducing fear and stress makes it easier for your body to heal and enables you to question or clear negative beliefs. You don’t even need to eliminate a belief completely to stop it harming you – you just have to loosen it enough that you can see that it might not be completely true. A useful general format to use is:

                   “Even though I believe ___________________________, I wonder if it’s completely true,
                                       and I deeply and completely accept myself.”

3. Remember that diagnosis is not a prediction. 
A diagnosis, even if it is correct, can’t tell you how you will respond to an illness. Even a prognosis (a prediction of how the illness will progress) should not really be treated as a true prediction – it can only say how other people, in the past have responded to the illness.

4. Counter negative statements with positive ones.  
A psychologist in the New Scientist article suggests that:
          “…doctors need to choose their words carefully so as to minimise negative expectations.”
While doctors are learning how to do this, however, you can do this for yourself.
Whenever you hear or read something negative regarding your own health, rephrase it in language which is positive but truthful. I’m not at all suggesting denial as a strategy here – denial tends to just stop you taking necessary and constructive action. I’m suggesting that you rephrase what has been said so that it no longer seems inevitable that you will experience a negative outcome. For instance, when I was pregnant, an obstetrician told me:
          “You are prone to gestational diabetes because you are over 40.”

I decided to rephrase this rather stark and unqualified statement to:
          “Pregnant women your age are more likely to develop gestational diabetes compared to younger women.”
which still accurately expresses the facts but without suggesting that it is inevitable that I would have that problem.

In fact, just a little research reveals that the actual risk of women over 40 developing gestational diabetes is between 7% and 12%, compared to 3%. So in fact I could have truthfully rephrased my obstetrician’s statement as:
“My chance of developing gestational diabetes is only 12%”
or even:
“I have an 88% chance of NOT developing gestational diabetes!”

Even if you have just been diagnosed with a condition where the survival rate is very low you can still truthfully state to yourself: 
          “I have this illness and it is still possible to survive.”
          “Other people have survived this illness and so it’s also possible for me.”
Combining this with some EFT will help to strengthen your belief in the positive statement. At the very least, it will help to reduce your belief that a negative outcome is inevitable.

Look after yourself physically – always consult a medical professional for any physical health issue you have or are worried about.

But look after yourself mentally too – it could make all the difference.

If you want more detailed help on how to avoid and clear negative beliefs, you might be interested in getting a copy of The EFT Coach Workbook for Complete Beginners which includes a whole section on how to find and clear your limiting beliefs.

Beliefs Can Harm You – Official!