Beliefs. We’re not born with them, they build and develop over time based on our experience of the world through family, education, socialisation, culture and many other influences. They may change over time, some may strengthen some may disappear, some are empowering and others disempowering but that doesn’t stop us hanging on to them.
A belief could be defined as an acceptance that something exists or is true, it doesn’t’ require proof and also as trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something. Essentially beliefs are one of the key drivers of behaviour yet they are often faulty, ill-conceived, poorly researched or without tangible evidence.
There are many ways I could write about beliefs and the impact they have on us and others through our behaviour, but this week I’ve chosen to write about their impact on our health through the placebo and nocebo effect.
You may be familiar with the placebo effect, in other words the belief that a substance or treatment which has no intrinsic therapeutic value such as sugar pills, sterile water, saline injections or fake surgery and other procedures are actually beneficial. Research has proved that any of these can produce real, positive results on a person’s health and align to the person’s expectations of the success of the treatment.
Interestingly their expectations can be influenced by their chosen medical professional, if the professional is positive and convincing, the patient is convinced. Essentially however it’s driven by the patient’s own belief. One example is that of patients with osteoarthritis requiring arthroscopic surgery. One group received the actual surgery and the other went through the anaesthetic and thought they were having surgery when all they had was a simple incision that looked like surgery but nothing more. The result? The two groups reported the same level of pain relief.
What may be less known is the nocebo effect in other words, the opposite of placebo and it’s equally true, if we believe that something is harmful, it will be. The translation from Latin of nocebo is ‘I shall harm’. There are clinical trials (Pharmaceutical Journal, March 2018) that have shown that the same number and type of negative side effects are seen in in patients who did not receive any intervention; they had only read the instruction letter that outlined those potential negative side effects.
It’s important to remember that the mind has a powerful effect on the body, sometimes too powerful, to the extent that we trust our mind more than our body which is the wrong way around. Our body doesn’t have the capacity to lie but our brain does or at least to stretch the truth and find evidence to support our existing, albeit potentially flawed, view of the world, one that is uniquely ours.
With a focus on health, are your beliefs largely positive or negative and how do they impact you, those around you and your view of your ability to stay healthy and thrive?