The Placebo Effect & the Mind as Healer

I could feel my client’s body bristle as she digested only parts what I was saying, but I continued, treading in a complex weave of ideas that I was certain was being misinterpreted. I tried to back pedal through what I thought were clear facts about pain, healing and the placebo effect. Where did my general statements go wrong? I gave her more information, and I tried to undo the idea that it was her fault she was in pain.

“Not at all,” I reiterated as warmly as I could, “it is not about fault at all, and the pain is real! The placebo effect has gotten a really bad rap over the years, it is so misunderstood.” Now thought, science has designed incredible studies to show that the whole notion of the “placebo effect” is a real scientific phenomenon! This is your mind and brain creating the healing! Using PET scanners and MRIs they have studied patients and their brains, and those who respond to sugar pills. Researchers have discovered that the “placebo effect” is a chemical reaction brought on by our own expectation and belief in a cure, and this changes the brains of patients. So, new research shows that a belief in a placebo treatment, leads to changes in brain chemistry.

"There have always been people who have said that we could make ourselves better by positive thinking,” says Dr. Michael Selzer, professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “After pooh-poohing this for years, there are (now) studies that show that our thoughts may actually interact with the brain in a physical way."

At Stanford University, scientists figured there must be a way to harness the placebo response to help patients soothe their own pain. The researchers rigged up an MRI so that people could watch real-time images of their brains, while lying in the scanner. The idea was to use the images to teach study volunteers to consciously pump up activity in parts of the brain activated by the placebo effect, says Dr. Sean Mackey, associate director of Stanford’s pain management division and director of its neuroimaging and pain lab. “Pain is not in the muscles or the arm that may be injured,” Mackey says. “The pain is in our brains.”

A signal starts out at an injured site and travels up to the brain, Mackey explains. But, until the brain interprets that electrical signal, you don’t actually “feel” pain. Part of what goes into the brain’s interpretation is expectation, Mackey says. “I think of the placebo response, at least in part, as a manipulation of expectancy. And perhaps by changing the expectancy and bumping up the placebo response we might be able to ultimately find a way to provide sustained therapy for chronic pain.”

The first time I was aware of the placebo effect was back in the mid 80s, when I was a research associate with the NIMH, (National Institute of Mental Health), and we worked in a major study for the Depression Research & Treatment Program. We studied the application of therapies on depressed patients using CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—thought restructuring), regular talking therapy, medicine and a placebo medicine or sugar pill. What we found is the CBT and medicine worked about the same. The big drum roll was at the end of treatment, those on the medicine had to continue treatment, but patients using CBT were done with treatment at the end of 20 weeks, most healed of depression. The surprising thing was that those on the placebo who got no treatment at all, just warm support from there therapist were also healed, like those using CBT and could leave the treatment protocol.

How are the depression placebo users and the pain management placebo users similar? Well, these patients in all the programs above healed themselves using the chemicals in their own brains, with only some thought activities or thought restructuring! Their brains released the right chemicals at the right time to activate healing! When we recognize we are powerful beings, and only need to accept that into consciousness, or retrain the Self to use these parts of us in new and more nourishing ways. Using both CBT and Hypnosis, I have created a quick and winning combination for training you to use your brain more effectively for maximum health, manage pain, and wellness. Call for more information.

Shirley Ryan, PhD, CCHt is a practicing hypnotherapist and counselor in Sacramento, CA. Helping people change, to be free of pain, and live happier, healthier lives.

References & Notes

  1. Endorphins & the Placebo Effect,

  2. Placebo’s Power Goes Beyond the Mind,

  3. Power of the Placebo,

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