We humans are meaning making machines. We go through our days experiencing any number of events and connecting emotions and story to what we observe. The meaning that we attribute to our experiences can impact our entire lives—for better or worse.
As an autoimmune community, we’re just beginning to understand the impact that our brains can have on our physical symptoms. We’ve chatted before about the agency we have in that process. Today I want to explore the interplay between neuroscience and healing a little more deeply.
The Placebo Effect: Taking Another Look
You’re probably familiar with the placebo effect, the concept that we might take a pill or get a treatment that helps us simply because we believe it will help us, when in actuality the pill or treatment provides no physical benefits. (For example: patients in a study on headache medications report relieved symptoms even when taking a sugar pill, simply because they believe it might help them.) The placebo effect is real and it is powerful, acting as a player in 18-80% of positive outcomes.
We don’t talk as much about the shadow side of the placebo phenomenon, called the nocebo effect, which demonstrates that our expectation for a negative outcome will produce the corresponding result. (For example: patients in a study on allergy medications report experiencing nausea even when taking a sugar pill, simply because they’ve been told that nausea is a possible side effect of one of the treatments.) Both of these phenomena underscore the impact that our brains have on our bodies.
We do ourselves a disservice in writing off the placebo effect. Because it’s used as a way to test the efficacy of a medical treatment by acting as the “neutral” or test case, we tend to diminish the power it has. “Oh, that’s just the placebo effect,” we say, when something works even without our clear understanding why. Really, though, this (and, concurrently, the power of the nocebo effect) should cause us to pause and think: how can we harness the power of this connection between our beliefs and our body?
If we have this kind of power to change our physical health with our mindset, we should be paying closer attention to the meaning we’re creating. We get to choose our beliefs and the stories we’re using to explain things in our lives. Why not start choosing a mindset that better supports our physical and mental health? If the placebo and nocebo effect are equally as powerful, it’s worth harnessing the placebo effect to improve healing rather than the nocebo effect that keeps us stuck in dis-ease.
Let’s break down the process. A thing happens. For example: I bump into another car in a parking lot. There’s no real damage to either car—in and of itself, this is a neutral event. But the truckload of meaning I attach to this event is staggering! “How could I do that? I’m so careless! It’s so embarrassing that people saw that!” and on and on. So, we take a fact (I hit another car) and tell ourselves a story about it (I’m an idiot). This is where it gets dangerous.
Nocebo Mindset = Ailing Body
The meaning that we make directly impacts our bodies. Many of my autoimmune clients come to me after a long road seeking medical help, hearing time and time again that there was nothing a doctor could do to help them. They show up at my practice thinking their body is always going to be itchy/tired/in pain/bloated/uncomfortable and there is no way they’ll ever heal. They get trapped in thinking that their autoimmune disease and symptoms mean that their body is broken, that they are broken. And, without a change, they’re likely to stay stuck in sick and Brokenville — because we are what we believe.
19th century American psychologist William James said, “No mental modification ever occurs, which is not accompanied or followed by a bodily change.” Think about it…when you perceive something stressful happening, your thought triggers your hypothalamus to contact your pituitary to signal your adrenals to release cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine to help you survive. That whole cascade of events starts with a belief, a thought. And what about when you look across the room and notice an attractive person that you want to put your hands all over…what happens to your body from that thought?! Belief literally becomes biology.
It’s worth asking: what am I currently believing about my condition, myself, my life, my relationships, etc. that might be keeping me stuck in illness? This is a particularly important question to ask if you have been digging into root causes — looking at diet, gut health, toxicity, hormones, deficiencies, etc. — and aren’t getting the results you hoped for.
Notice what meaning you make when you read the lab results you have been anticipating or the meaning you make when you feel new or familiar symptoms creep in. Do you find yourself haunted by words that your friends, family or providers have told you about your disease process — it isn’t real, it’s in your head, you’ll never heal, you will always be on medication, you can’t eat certain foods, you are a complicated case, there is nothing to be done…
Focus Your Thoughts on Healing (Rather than Disease)
So: if you are an autoimmune sufferer telling yourself a sad story of how you’ll never heal and your body is broken and you spend your days waiting for the gluten or nightshade vegetables to ruin your day…those thoughts are reinforced in your body each time you have them. The same is true when you focus your thoughts on hope and trust in your body’s ability to heal. When you believe that your self care is effective, you give it the power to work. It can feel silly, but I’ve found clients having success by mentally picturing their internal organs looking pink, healthy, and functional, serving their purpose effectively. Don’t be afraid to have a pep talk with your immune system, giving it some guidance on what you want it to do.
One study illustrates the power that simply thinking can have on our brain chemistry: when compared to a group of volunteers who were asked to play a simple sequence of notes on a piano each day, a group of volunteers who imagined playing the same notes had the same changes in their brain scans. The brain did not distinguish between imagining an action and actually taking it. This is a great demonstration that it isn’t what is really happening that our brain recognizes as real or fake, it is completely what we believe and think.
Furthermore, what we put our faith in (whether it’s an injection, pill, thought, intervention, tincture, needle, prayer, etc.) is going to help us a great deal more than treatments that we are skeptical of or don’t think about at all. The same is true of health care providers. Simply by believing someone can help us makes their advice all the more effective. If we can harness this kind of faith in our belief system and our mental game, it unlocks some serious healing power. Also, it is important to notice how we can put our faith in a provider as the thing that can heal us, versus putting the power and faith in our own body. When we can see that our body has the capacity to be strong, powerful, and whole we no longer need to search for that external someone that will have all the answers and the magic potion to solve our problems.
Keep Your Attention on Love
And it’s not just what you believe that has power, it’s the intention behind it. The power of intention is almost unimaginable to me. When I come from a place of, “I don’t want to be sick and I must beat this,” the root intention behind that thought is fear. When I come from a place of love, surrender and trust, my thoughts are more aligned with, “I am on the path to healing.” Or, “I am whole and well and my body has everything it needs. I’ve got this!”
I often use the example of eating a french fry. You can have an internal dialogue about a fry from a place of love or fear. Fear: ”I can’t eat this fry because I will get fat.” Love: “I’m choosing not to eat this fry because my body feels so much lighter, happier, and free when it has what it needs.” Look at your thoughts and assess your intention. Are you coming from a place of love or fear? If fear is present, find a way to harness love.
My health coaching clients start to see the biggest impacts when they make these mental shifts. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that mental training should ever replace sound medical advice. But we don’t get the full benefit of any treatment if we aren’t also harnessing the power of the mind to impact healing.
Buy-in is Everything
There are countless studies you can read about the powerful impact of mindset on physical healing. (I’ve personally found the work of Dr. David Hamilton, Dr. Bruce Lipton, and Dr. Lissa Rankin quite instructive, and many of my clients love the writings of Louise Hay, as well.) Read some for yourself, and enter into this practice with the whole-hearted belief that you are bringing your best efforts to support your own health.
I’d love to hear: how are you using your thoughts to positively impact your healing? What kind of meaning do you attach to your autoimmune symptoms? Are there ways you can start working to change some negative beliefs today? Share in the comments!