Health and Happiness Tips: Beliefs, Placebos, Health and Happiness
Welcome to the health and happiness blog.
Today we are looking at beliefs. There’s often some confusion about what I mean by ‘beliefs’ as they often mean your individual spiritual, religious ideas – but when I use this term I mean ‘the way that you see the world’. The key thing about beliefs is they show up as ‘truths’ – they are versions of how the world works. But the thing about beliefs is sometimes they are absolutely accurate and sometimes they are an approximation of how reality really is.
However, because they are beliefs, we don’t see them as an approximation. We see them as THE truth, and this is where we can get stuck.
Beliefs about ourselves
We can have beliefs where we can think certain things about ourselves to be true, that just aren’t true. Sometimes it could be really valuable, for example, you might think, ‘I’m really good at meeting people at parties’, ‘Everything I do works out well’.
But sometimes we can have beliefs like ‘I’m always the kind of person that gets left out’ or ‘I get lots of viruses’ or ‘bad things happen to me’ and those kinds of beliefs are not so useful.
The key thing to remember about beliefs is not, are they right or wrong. Although that can sometimes be helpful, the most useful question to ask is.
Is this belief useful for me?
Does it help me?
So if you’re thinking about jumping from a great height and imagining you can fly without wings, then that is probably not a useful belief, but if you’re thinking ‘you know what I think if I try something new as I’ve got a really good chance of finding my way through it’ then that’s a much more useful belief.
It’s worth noting that neither of those is necessarily true, but one may be more useful than the others.
We need to become good at spotting beliefs which is a topic for another blog, but before we do, let’s consider why it is so important to do so.
The importance of beliefs
Considering beliefs are just our thoughts and guesses about how the world is, they are incredibly powerful – affecting our physical and mental health, our success and life’s path and there is a lot of research into this.
In terms of health, much of the research comes from work with placebos. Placebos are where someone is given a pill or an intervention that contains nothing of value (it’s also called a ‘sham’ intervention). Placebos are often used to compare the effects of giving a placebo with the effects of a real drug or intervention. This is to see how much better the real thing is compared to the placebo, because it’s well known that just by giving an inert pill or giving any intervention people will gain some benefit from it.
What’s surprising is that the effects that people get from placebos are so large that they can get positive changes from things like placebo surgery, pain relief from placebo morphine, improvement in Parkinson’s symptoms from placebo injections and so on.
Nocebos are just as interesting – they are the dark side of placebo, where people get a negative response from taking the pill that contains nothing. In one study, they gave people a placebo and compared it to a real drug that had three types of side effects, one of which was digestive system symptoms.
In this study, undertaken in a number of different locations, there was one hospital where they forgot to photocopy the side effects sheet correctly – so that only two of the side effects were mentioned.
The digestive system side effects weren’t on the piece of paper because of the photocopying error. They gave out these warning leaflets, and guess what happened…
Yes. The hospitals where the patients received the full list of side effects, got the full range of side effects. In the hospital where they had failed to warn about the potential side effects in their digestive system, they didn’t get these side effects.
This shows how much our beliefs, our expectations, affect what happens in our body (for more studies see the papers in the reference section below).
I recently had a discussion with Professor Andrea Evers, a leading researcher in the field. I asked her, as she had extensively studied placebos and the mind-body connection (how what we think affects our neurology and our physiology) and what’s the key thing that she had learned that she would like to share with everybody.
She said if ‘I had a friend who was going to have an operation, and they said to me, ‘I don’t think the operation is going to work’ then I would advise that person to not have the operation yet’.
She explained that because, there’s so much neurology pointing in the direction towards ‘this isn’t going to work’, the power of that negative expectation is enough to undo the potential benefits, or only some of the potential benefits of the operation. And you don’t want to avoid this.
She suggests spending some time talking to the doctor, choosing a different surgeon, talking to people who have had success, getting your ‘head straight’, thinking ‘yeah, this is going to work for me’ because if you combine good intervention plus your beliefs/expectations pointing in the same direction, then you’re going to be maximising your chances of getting the change you want.
And if you’re in that position where you have a good intervention, but you’re thinking it’s not going to work that will reduce the chance of success and you just don’t want that. And this is the advice from someone who’s a really straight scientist who is saying this is too important.
So as our beliefs can affect our physiology, our response to interventions, whether its side effects or positive effects, we really need to pay attention to them. To check in and find out, what are my beliefs? So the question for you this week is what beliefs have you noticed getting in the way of you having the life you love or having a great week?
Are you expecting something this week, but maybe that isn’t useful for you now?
Don’t ask, ‘Is it right or wrong, false or true?’ But ‘Is it useful for me to hold on to that belief about myself or my health?’
What do you believe about others?
To start check in with your beliefs, find out what you’re believing.
We will look at how do you spot them more clearly, as there are certain cues and clues, and of course, how do you change them in other blogs, so do make sure you subscribe to our newsletter and Facebook and Instagram so you don’t miss out.
But the first thing is just to become aware of what you’re thinking because beliefs masquerade as truth and we need to lift the curtain, peel back the carpet and find out what’s going on. Once we recognise what we are thinking then we can start to change it.
I hope you found that useful. Have a great week. I’ll see you on the next one.
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Influence of Side Effect Information Framing on Nocebo Effects. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 53(7), 621–629. https://doi.org/10.1093/abm/kay071
Hansen, E., & Zech, N. (2019). Nocebo Effects and Negative Suggestions in Daily Clinical Practice – Forms, Impact and Approaches to Avoid Them. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2019.00077
Howick, J., Webster, R., Kirby, N., & Hood, K. (2018). Rapid overview of systematic reviews of nocebo effects reported by patients taking placebos in clinical trials. Trials, 19(1), 674. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-018-3042-4