Our beliefs have a greater effect on our lives than we realize. From the popularity of morning “I am” affirmations to the increasing sales of self-help books, we are learning just how powerful our thoughts really are.
We’re also learning that creating a change from our beliefs can go further than looking in the mirror and telling yourself how great you are that day...
Through the use of our minds and our beliefs, we have the power to impact our physical and mental health in a positive and healing way.
I understand that this can sound a bit fishy or too mainstream for some of you, so let’s take a look at some research that has been done in the medical world.
Placebo Effect in Surgery
When other medical treatments fail to relieve the pain of osteoarthritis in the knee, often times arthroscopic lavage or debridement will be recommended by doctors. However, there is no clear evidence that the surgeries actually cure osteoarthritis, yet patients still report relief of pain and negative symptoms afterward.
This of course sparked an interest in the minds of medical field researchers.
They wanted to test the pain and functioning outcomes of arthroscopic lavage or debridement surgeries when compared to a placebo procedure to see how beliefs can affect results (aka the placebo effect).
What researchers did was take 180 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and randomly assigned them into three separate groups. One group received arthroscopic lavage, the other received arthroscopic debridement, and the last group received a placebo surgery. The placebo group underwent a simulated surgery, including prepping, small incisions in the knee, splashing saline solution, and manipulating the knee as if arthroscopic surgery was performed.
The patients and the outcome assessors were not told what group anyone had been placed in (in statistical terms this means they were blinded). All blinding does is help to ensure that no one skews the results through personal biases, expectations, etc.
Over intervals of the next two years after their surgeries, each individual would give a self-reported score based on pain and functioning of their knee as well as objective tests of climbing stairs and walking.
I’m sure you can infer the results from the context of this post, but just in case you’re still questioning... the assessors found that there was no point during the research that arthroscopic lavage or debridement showed better results than the placebo surgery.
Meaning that on every one of their pain and functioning self-report scores, they all showed similar results. The outcomes of the surgeries were no better than the placebo procedure.
What the Placebo Effect Means For You
You may be wondering how surgery for osteoarthritis applies to you. Maybe you’re struggling with chronic pain, learning how to adjust with your new depression medication, or are going through rehab after major surgery.
Whatever your situation is, your beliefs and the placebo effect can help.
Our mind plays a huge role in our physical health. From the functioning of our immune system, cell generation, and our overall well-being the mind is at the center of it all.
When we realize this mind-body connection we can begin to see how our thoughts in our mind can impact our bodies as well.
If you are dealing with chronic pain, it’s pretty normal to always be focused on the pain that you’re experiencing.
However, when you dwell on that pain it can actually make it worse...
It can sound pretty counter-intuitive, but when we begin to accept that the pain is there rather than fight it our mind can begin to work.
Even things like having positive thoughts, focusing our attention on the parts of our body that feel good, and believing that we do feel good can all affect how our brain works in our body.
What do I mean by that? Am I saying that your brain will work harder simply because you’re being positive?
Not necessarily harder, but it does work smarter as the placebo effect of positivity begins to take over. Your immune system, hormones, and nervous system can all work together so that you feel less pain (or more pain when you’re feeling negative).
When you’re in pain, it’s normal to develop feelings of anger or anxiety as these feelings are meant to protect you from harm. However, when you’re experiencing chronic pain that never seems to go away, these emotions can increase the stress hormones in your body (cortisol and adrenaline).
And research has shown that when our bodies are continually at this heightened state it can lead to some pretty harsh side effects.
Steps to Make it Work
Now that you see how effective the placebo effect can work for healing our bodies, let’s explore some practices to make it work for you.
1. Shift Your Attention
Have you ever heard the saying, “What you resist will persist?”
It can apply heavily to what we’re talking about today. Whether it’s depression, chronic pain, etc., the goal here isn’t to ignore the problem. Rather, you can accept it and then shift your attention away.
Your mind will continually go to the negative circuits it has created around pain unless you take the steps to change it.
When you begin to focus on the positive things in life, like what you’re wanting to get out of the day or finding a small way to give back, you will train your mind to think more positively.
And when you’re thinking positively you’re taking away the negative emotions that play into your problems.
That’s not to say the problems or pain go away, you’re simply allowing the placebo effect to take over and switch your mindset.
Because we know that when our minds are focused on the positive, it can heal our bodies.
2. Acknowledging Your Body
Have you ever had a cold with an awful stuffy nose and you never realize how amazing it is to be able to breathe normally until you can’t anymore?
Or maybe you have that “ one bad knee” or that “one bad eye” that brings continual frustration as you go about your day.
Well, similar to shifting your attention towards the good things in life, you can also shift your attention to the parts of your body that feel good.
If you’re feeling pain in one shoulder it’s okay to acknowledge that pain but then allow yourself to acknowledge the other shoulder that is feeling great. Be thankful for that functioning shoulder and all of the ways that it works perfectly.
Be aware of the positive sensations in your body that are so easy to look over and take for granted.
Just like it’s difficult to be thankful for breathing through your nose until you can’t anymore, it can be a challenge to not continually focus on the good that our bodies do.
But when you make a conscious effort to not take the good for granted, you will see how your mind naturally follows suit leading to a more positive mind-body connection.
3. Relaxing Your Body to Relax Your Mind
Often times we go through life at a mile per minute without taking the time to assess where we’re at physically and mentally.
This can lead to bodily tension, increased stress hormones, and a cluttered mind.
When your body isn’t relaxed, your mind won’t be able to work at its optimal levels.
Prioritize relaxation during the week. This can be relaxation for your mind or for your body because often times relaxing one will help you relax the other.
If you love hot baths, reading, stretching, yoga, playing guitar, or dancing, start with intentionally working these activities into your weekly schedule.
Some of you may only have 20 minutes to start with, and that’s okay!
No matter how much time you have, you can begin to increase your awareness of the mind-body connection and the healing that can come when you allow yourself to relax.
The mind-body connection is pivotal in the treatment of pain.
As you begin to see the relationship between your mind and your body you’ll start to notice how your attention, thoughts, and daily activities can play a role in the bodily symptoms you experience.