Lets Imagine You Feel Better – maybe it’s not just pretend?

It was WWII, and Allied forces were storming the beaches of Italy. Under heavy enemy fire large numbers of troops were injured. Medical supplies ran low, including morphine. A nurse working with an anesthesiologist named Henry Beecher, administered an injection to an injured soldier, assuring him that he was receiving morphine. The injection was in fact salt water. To the amazement of both the nurse and Beecher, the injection relieved the soldier’s pain.

You’ve likely heard the concept of “placebo” treatment. After Beecher returned from WWII service he initiated the very complex process of comparing medical drugs to fake pills, most often simply sugar pills. The idea was to compare medications in the testing phase to “placebos” to determine if the medications were anymore effective than simple suggestion. For pharmaceutical companies the gold standard became exceeding the “placebo effect.”

Fast forward to today. You can do the research yourself, but let me summarize for those that want to save time. The pharmaceutical companies are facing a huge problem – for unknown reasons the placebo effect is going up. More drugs than ever are being defeated in testing phases due to their inability to demonstrate effectiveness beyond that of a sugar pill. Some estimate that the placebo effect has doubled in the last ten years. While the implications for this are intriguing, befuddling, and huge, what are the current implications for counseling and everyday life?

As researchers scramble to unpack the placebo effect several things seem initially clear. First, it isn’t just the sugar pill, but it is the context and atmosphere under which it is delivered. For example, when a placebo is administered by a worker who does not engage the patient, and acts impartial the placebo effect is present, to a degree. However, when the same placebo is administered by a caring, engaged worker, who is optimistic about the patient’s response and outcome, the placebo effect goes up notably. Why? Is this simply the power of positive thinking? Am I about to tell you to go repeat positive self statements?

Let’s slow down a bit. It appears that the placebo effect actually has a chemical basis. Certain conditions seem to activate the brains own healing system. In the medical community the process of activating this response is being referred to as the “therapeutic ritual.” Can we learn from this?

Here are some ideas. Initial studies into the placebo effect, and the conditions that enhance it include the following characteristics: empathy, knowledge or education, optimism, and action. First, you can improve your own situation by taking the initiative to spend time with those in your life who extend appropriate understanding and empathy to you. Second, educate yourself on whatever the challenges are that you currently face. Third, concentrate on developing optimism – not sugary feel good stuff – but optimism based in fact. Call it hopefullness connected to realistic thinking. Fourth, be involved in your own self-care. Don’t put your well being solely in the hands of others, but get involved. Actively pursue self care type activities.

With the help of others, you can effect your own health and well being.

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