My mother had a sore neck. Probably from Pilates class, she thought. So she went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered an MRI for a week later.
My mother asked her doctor why he was ordering more tests. Did he see evidence of osteoporosis? Arthritis? A slipped disc?
Without even making eye contact with her, Mom’s doctor said, “Could be metastatic cancer.” Then promptly left the room.
Unsurprisingly, my phone rang next. It was my mother, who has read my book Mind Over Medicine, asking me to help calm her nervous system.
The Amygdala As Sentry
Here’s what was happening in my mother’s brain when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort.
Mom was married to my father, a radiologist whose job it was to read X-rays, identify any potential abnormalities, and order follow up testing if anything appeared even remotely suspicious. So her thinking, rational forebrain reasoned, “It’s probably nothing and the doctor is just covering his butt by ordering a follow up scan.”
But her amygdala, the scaredy-cat part of her primordial limbic brain, only hears, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”
Now being an amygdala is sort of like being one of those meerkat sentries that stands on the top of the mound, surveying the environment for danger in order to protect the whole clan of meerkats. The amygdala’s primary job is to be on the lookout for danger and sound the alarm when it discovers a threat. When it does, it triggers a whole cascade of hormonal activity, and the hormones that get secreted bathe every cell in the body.
The medical establishment has been proving that the mind can heal the body for over 50 years. We call it “the placebo effect,” and we know that when patients in clinical trials get nothing but sugar pills, saline injections, or fake surgeries, but believe they might be getting the new wonder drug or miracle surgery, their bodies get better 18-80% of the time.
While many are aware of the seemingly mysterious placebo effect, fewer people know about its evil twin, “the nocebo effect.” When I was researching my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, I became convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that a combination of positive belief and the nurturing care of the right healer can activate the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms and help the body heal itself.
But was the opposite also true? Do negative beliefs about our health or harsh care from insensitive doctors harm the body?
Turns out they can.
Harmful Beliefs Poison Your Body
As reported in an article in The Lancet, researchers in San Diego examined the death records of almost 30,000 Chinese-Americans and compared them to over 400,000 randomly selected white people. What they found was that Chinese-Americans, but not whites, die significantly earlier than normal (by as much as 5 years) if they have a combination of disease and birth year which Chinese astrology and Chinese medicine consider ill-fated.
The researchers found that the more strongly the Chinese-Americans attached to traditional Chinese superstitions, the earlier they died. When they examined the data, they concluded that the reduction in life expectancy could not be explained by genetic factors, the lifestyle choices or behavior of the patients, the skill of the doctors, or any other variable.
Most of us have heard of “the placebo effect,” the heal-inducing effect patients in clinical trials experience when they believe they’re getting a fancy new drug or surgery but are actually getting fake treatment. The placebo effect is real, it works about 18-80% of the time, and it’s not just in your head - it actually dilates bronchi, heals ulcers, makes warts disappear, drops your blood pressure, and even makes bald men who think they’re getting Rogaine grow hair!
Unwanted Side Effects
But the placebo effect has a shadow side. The same mind-body power that can heal you can also harm you. When patients in double-blinded clinical trials are warned about the side effects they may experience if they’re given the real drug, approximately 25% experience sometimes severe side effects, even when they’re only taking sugar pills.
Those treated with nothing more than placebos often report fatigue, vomiting, muscle weakness, colds, ringing in the ears, taste disturbances, memory disturbances, and other symptoms that shouldn’t result from a sugar pill.
Interestingly, these nocebo complaints aren't random; they tend to arise in response to the side effect warnings on the actual drug or treatment. The mere suggestion that a patient may experience negative symptoms in response to a medication (or a sugar pill) may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you tell a patient treated with a placebo he might experience nausea, he’s likely to feel nauseous. If you suggest that he might get a headache, he may. Patients given nothing but saline who thought it was chemotherapy actually threw up and lost their hair!