How to Create Your Own Healthy Placebo

Michael Loren

Photo by Danilo Alvesd on Unsplash

My son got sick this week. He had a fever, was lethargic, and seemed like he was breathing heavily. After a trip to the doctor and a Covid test (don’t worry -he doesn’t have it), he’s feeling significantly better. Here’s the thing, though. I’m suddenly feeling sick. Or, well . . . I think I am.

A little background — my husband and I are closet hypochondriacs. And, to boot, we are also highly suggestible humans in so many ways. For instance, we can be persuaded that such-and-such new set of sheets is something we need right away, I think I’m pregnant every time I get any kind of cramps, and now that our kid had one of the 320,000 viruses on the earth that can infect mammals, my husband and I are now convinced that we’re all Covid-19 positive.

Now, as you’re busy rolling your eyes, let me tell you that I am coming to realize that being a suggestible human, outside of the whole hypochondriac thing, may not always be a bad thing. If I’m easily persuaded by any rational (or sometimes irrational) theory thrown my way, it stands to reason that I could potentially not just be easily swayed by the negative ones.

Like a patient taking a placebo treatment, I wondered if I could just convince myself of something that I needed to do more and fake myself into improving my life. I figured, if I could trick myself placebo-style, my suggestible-ness might just work in my favor. In short, my little epiphany last week was that I could use the little gullible tendency in my psyche to my advantage. So, I did a little research and then I did a little experiment. Here’s how it went.

The Placebo Effect

First, I did a little research on the placebo effect. Most of us know that the placebo effect centers around the idea that your brain can convince your body that whatever pill you are taking is working. Scientists don’t exactly know how placebos work, but pill-taking patients have been healing themselves for decades without any actual drugs inside the capsules they take. (Obviously, the patients taking placebo treatments were not aware that their treatments were, in fact, not real medication).

But, what if the patient DID know that their treatment was a placebo? Well, it turns out that, in some patients, placebos still worked. Even when the patient knew that he or she was taking a fake treatment. In a study conducted by professor Ted Kaptchuk at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the researchers found that the placebo was 50% as effective as the actual drug in reducing pain after a migraine attack. Here’s the thing, though, that’s still 50%. So, even when the patients knew that they were taking a placebo it still worked. Well, at least, some of the time.

“People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect,” says Kaptchuk. “Even if they know it’s not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.” So, I reasoned, taking measures to take care of ourselves, be it a pill or some other kind of treatment, can help trick our brain into thinking that we are getting the good stuff.

Maybe if I could change my thought patterns on a few things, I could improve my habits. Here’s how it went down.

The Experiment

I am the WORST about remembering to use my inhaler and take my asthma medicine. Like, the worst. So, I decided to focus on getting better at remembering to do those two things. Also, I’ve recently not been so great about drinking as much water as I should. In the past, I had linked drinking water to tasks I needed to do at work, but since being home, I leave my water bottle in another room and forget where it is.

So, the two things I decided to “placebo-fy” were taking my daily medications and drinking 2 liters of water per day. Like a good student, though, I needed information to support my new truths. The good thing is that you can find any information to support almost any theory on the internet. So, I did a little research on my two new goals.

First, I decided to use the most obvious facts to support taking my asthma medication. I looked up all of the stats on Covid-19 patients and how susceptible people with uncontrolled asthma were to the disease. Turns out, according to most things I read, people with uncontrolled asthma (folks like me who suck at taking their meds) ARE more likely to experience more severe symptoms. That was more than enough information for me.

Second, I found something called “water therapy” that says you should drink 1.5 or so liters of water in the morning first thing after you wake up. Apparently, it can help boost nutrient absorption, can improve your complexion, and can increase metabolism. While it’s not the most prevalent recommendation from professionals as to drink water, it sounded cool. “I’m going to give myself some water therapy”, I thought. If I couldn’t trust myself to drink water throughout the day, I might as well chug a lug in the morning and at night so I wouldn’t have to worry about it at other times.

In short, I found an ample amount of evidence to support my two new goals. Next, I needed to find myself a few statements to run through my head as my new truths. The first one was easy. My placebo mental statement for taking my asthma medication was, “I will perish from Covid-19 if I don’t take take my pill and use my inhaler”. While that totally isn’t completely true, it IS true that IF I do contract the virus, I will be in a better place.

My second placebo mental statement was a bit more positive. I decided to tell myself that, “I’m undergoing water therapy so that my body absorbs more nutrients and I have to spend less money on Botox”. Again, not completely 100% accurate, but very effective. Why? Well, this statement makes me feel fancy. “Water therapy” seems like a treatment I would get at Burke Williams and I love the idea of feeling fancy.

The Results

So, for the past week, I have been telling myself these two new not-so-true truths to try to convince myself to do things I need to do to be a healthier human. And guess what? It’s worked! Mostly because I’m a little vain and I don’t want to perish from a deadly lung-infesting virus. But, nevertheless, it has worked so far.

According to Healthline, people who master this self-convincing sort of self talk are, on average, more confident and productive. Particularly for suggestible folks like myself, even though I knew that my two new statements were not completely true, the more I internally said them to myself, the more I believed them. I would say something like, “I’m going to perish if I don’t use my inhaler” and then immediately I would think, “That’s not true”. And then, while I was thinking that the statement wasn’t true . . . I was using my inhaler.

The fact of the matter is that many of us can convince ourselves of pretty much anything. If you care enough to take the time to set up your plans and the thoughts that support them, you can work to convince yourself of almost anything. Why not take advantage of your brain’s ability to begin to believe something that you repeatedly think or say? So far, it has worked for me, so I encourage you to take control of your thoughts, set yourself up for success, and create your own placebo effect for your own good.

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Writer, dad, entrepreneur, observer, cautious optimist

Burbank, CA

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