Medical experiments are required to have a control group in order to validate the results. Participants are given something innocuous like a sugar pill and are not told whether they’ve received the medicine or the placebo. In many cases, patients who receive the placebo will respond to treatment as though they had received the medicine. Their bodies physiologically respond to the pill because they believed they were receiving the treatment. This is known as the placebo effect.
The nocebo effect is a lesser-known occurrence that is an evil twin of the placebo effect. Nocebo in Latin means ‘I will harm;’ it is the opposite of placebo, ‘I will please.’ A nocebo is a neutral element that is given with the suggestion that it will do you harm. In thinking that they are given something harmful, patients’ bodies will often respond by getting sick.
Listen to any commercial for prescription drugs and you will hear the litany of possible side effects. Patients who know the side effects are more likely to develop them. In medical studies many patients drop out citing adverse side effects even though they were unknowingly receiving the placebo.
We often think of enclosed spaces in negative terms. Many people believe that re-circulated air on airplanes, buses, and in offices are transport systems for disease. You hear someone coughing or sneezing on a plane and you imagine the germs floating around, getting sucked into the vents, and blown directly into your face. Before the flight is over you start sniffling. The negative suggestion that you get sick on planes makes your body more susceptible to the disease.
A nocebo can be more than just a medical term, it can apply to everyday life. Any item that is introduced to you as a harmful agent can take on those characteristics in your mind whether or not those characteristics apply. Take superstition for example. In American culture the number 13 is considered unlucky. People fear Friday the 13th and even skip the 13th floor of buildings. Many negative happenings are attributed to the number 13th, however the number 13 is arbitrary. In Italian culture, the number 17 is the unlucky number. Is one number really more unlucky than the other? Of course not, it is the psychology surrounding the negative suggestion.
Our minds give weight to negative suggestion. Our bodies respond to negativity on a physiological level. We must learn to control those reactions in order to take control of our health.