By Punya Srivatsava
The placebo effect testifies to the power of the human mind to heal itself when it believes in the efficacy of the treatment – even if it is a sugar pill. Can healers harness this power to bring about healing, asks Punya Srivastava
During the end of World War II, Harvard-educated American surgeon Henry Beecher was about to operate upon a badly wounded soldier in the military hospital when he ran out of morphine. Beecher was afraid that without the pain killer, the soldier would not be able to withstand the surgical pain, and suffer from fatalistic cardiovascular shock. In desperation, one of the assisting nurses filled a syringe with saline water and gave the soldier a shot. What happened next astounded Beecher. The soldier calmed down thinking that he had been administered morphine, and the surgeon was able to operate upon him without the soldier feeling much pain. Enthused by this success, Beecher always used this technique whenever he ran out of morphine. This experience led him to conduct an indepth study of the power of placebos.
Theoretically speaking, a placebo is anything that seems to be a real medical treatment – like a pill, or a shot – but in reality, is not. Mind over matter; power of faith; positive thinking; affirmations – a placebo effect is all these and much more. In short, the placebo effect is therapeutic.
How does it work?
My grandmother has been rendered bedridden since the past 10 months. Old age has gradually caught up with her at 83, along with dementia. Sleep eluded her at nights in the early months, despite being prescribed sleeping pills. The lack of sleep increased her anxiety level and vice-versa, which further affected her coherence. She started demanding three to four, and sometimes five sleeping pills every night in the hope of catching a few winks. However, the doctor restricted the number to two pills per night. What came to her rescue was the magic solution administered to her by my mother every night, which was nothing but one-third glass of salt and sugar solution. She was made to believe that since more than two pills per night were harmful, the doctor had prescribed this solution to help her sleep. She began to manage two to three hours of undisturbed sleep thereafter.
Science journalist Jo Marchant, in her article, Heal Thyself, writes, “It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself – rather than a particular drug – might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.”
Healer Sanjiv Ranjan writes in his bestseller, The Seven Mystical laws of Self-Healing, “The placebo effect states that 66 per cent people have the capacity to heal by themselves simply by believing that they are taking some medicine, or are in some therapeutic procedure.” This means that two-third of the world population has the capacity to heal itself without any external intervention, simply on the basis of faith.
The placebo effect rests on expectations and the person’s state of mind at the time of being given the placebo.The placebo effect occurs because a person expects a particular outcome to occur. Faith in the adminstrator, generally the doctor, also plays a significant role in triggering the desired outcome. And this is what happened to my grandmother. She would only sleep well the night my mother would prepare and make her drink that solution. If my mother assigned this duty to any of us, the next morning my granny would complain of not sleeping a wink because “the kids don’t know the exact way of preparing the solution”. This faith in my mother as well as the belief that the solution actually made her sleepy, had a placebo effect on her.
Dr Sadia Raval, founder and clinical psychologist at Inner Space Therapy, Mumbai, shares that studies done on neuroplasticity tell us that the brain can undergo changes, both structural and functional, based on the feelings, thoughts and perceptions of the individual. “These brain changes can, in turn, have an effect on how one thinks, feels or perceives. Hence there is a cyclical interaction between the individual and his environment that constantly changes both.” It is, therefore, easy to understand how an expectation of something may actually cause it to happen. The expectation actually causes changes in thinking, feeling and therefore actually perceiving the event.
Dr Vijayalakshmi Panthaiyan, healer and Founder of Alpha Mind Power, Chennai, shares her experience on the same line. “A simple thought can certainly heal a person. There have been many occasions when people tell me about their health problem and ask for a healing. I also assure them I will heal them. But, sometimes, due to many things on my mind, I forget to send them healing although the intention was there. But the next day, I get mails from them thanking me for the healing and explaining how they felt just fine in the morning! Well, they believed that they were receiving the healing energy and that belief healed them!” she shares.
Also, when the doctor or the healer gives the placebo with confidence, positive energy and good will, the patient is sure to experience a positive change. There are so many stories of patients with severe abdominal pain or excruciating headache who responded to placebo in the form of innocuous saline or water injections because they believed that they had been given a strong pain killer.
There are people who keep falling sick because of persistent negative or fearful thinking. “I have come across people who prefer to remain sick so that their relatives or sometimes colleagues will pity them, and show more concern. They actually cause the sickness with their thought forms!” exclaims Dr Panthaiyan.
Dr Ellen Langer, one of the most famous and longest serving psychologists at Harvard, found in her research that the fear of disease and negative prognoses, especially in cancer and heart disease, are among the most important factors that interfere with the body’s healing capacity, also termed the Nocebo effect.
Delhi-based Dr Saroj Dubey, super-specialist gastroenterologist, shares a striking case that illustrates the power of both the placebo and nocebo effect. “I vividly recall a patient with cirrhosis of liver with hepatocellular carcinoma or liver cancer. Since he was already in the advanced stage, I could not offer anything much to him. However, his family decided not to reveal his condition to the patient, and we decided to give him some vitamins and non-specific medicines. The patient managed well for 10 to 12 months whereas his expected life span was only three to four months. He always had a cheery personage and looked healthy whenever he came for his check-ups,” he shares. However, one day, he looked quite sick and haggard. His family confided that he had inadvertently overheard them discussing his cancer, which was a big blow to him. That proved to be his last visit and soon after he passed away. “With experience, I have come to realise that patients don’t read statistics when they come for treatment, and a large measure of the success of treatment rests in the power of their mind and their strong belief systems,” explains Dr Dubey.
A senior dignitary in the Government of India went for his routine check-up with an illustrious Delhi cardiologist, who saw his ECG and pronounced that he had serious heart disease. He suggested an urgent angiogram and may be either an angioplasty or a bypass after that. However, a well-wisher told the elderly gentleman to see Padma Bhushan Dr B M Hegde, scientist and educationist. “I found that the anomaly was seen even in his ECG report taken 35 years ago. When I told him that he needed no treatment, as this must have been a condition that he was born with, his doubt remained because his other cardiologist was an illustrious one and could not have been so wrong! I took the two readings and explained the changes in great detail to him, showing him that whatever ‘serious disease’ he was supposed to have had was there 35 years ago also. If he could be active and working for 35 years with the block, he could go on for another 35 years. His face brightened and he is still alive, kicking and active! Removing his nocebo effect did the trick,” he says, adding, “May I earnestly appeal to our colleagues not to frighten patients with nocebo thoughts in the first place? Even if one has to tell a small lie to avoid a nocebo situation that might save a life, it might be worth weighing our words, before we speak as doctors.”
Placebo’s role in healing
Says Sanjiv Ranjan, “It has been noticed that the placebo effect is found more often in people who love themselves and love life.”
According to Dr Panthaiyan, a simple sentence ‘You are perfectly all right’ can make a person feel better about himself or herself. “You can call it a white lie. But I see the effect of such statements very often. When people come to me for counselling, they are focussed only on how others treat them and feel bad for themselves. This self-pity creates many illnesses. I tell them that I found the conversation with them quite interesting, or that something about him or her is very good. These simple words have indeed created dramatic shifts in such people’s perspective about themselves. I think a placebo can be not just some pill but a thought planted in a person’s mind that he or she is perfectly fine,” she explains.
The placebo effect works well not only for physical illnesses but for psychosomatic disorders as well. Indeed, 99 per cent of diseases or disorders are a manifestation of a hampered mind. One reason why placebo works, especially in psychosomatic difficulties, particularly where there is pain involved, is because it gives the patient necessary attention. “When given adequate attention in the form of a placebo, it responds because the pain is made to feel valid. Subconsciously it is also a validation of the underlying displaced emotion,” says Dr Raval. She adds, “However, psychotherapy is a must alongside any placebo treatment, because we do not want a client to convert his emotional symptoms into pain. The underlying emotion needs to surface and be directly addressed.” Science is beginning to make a shift in its perception. It is beginning to understand and experiment with the science of belief and the science of consciousness. Just as the world is shifting its focus on organic food and holistic lifestyle, soon it will also start shifting towards believing and healing itself.
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