Conquering the contagion of fear

The nocebo effect, that little-known cousin (some say “evil twin”) of the placebo effect, causes people to experience adverse physical reactions because they’ve been convinced – or convinced themselves – that an otherwise inert pill or medical procedure could cause suffering.


PETALUMA, Calif., March 9, 2015 – When the prophet Job declared, “the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,” little did he know he was describing what folks today might call the nocebo effect, that little-known cousin (some say “evil twin”) of the placebo effect that causes people to experience adverse physical reactions because they’ve been convinced – or convinced themselves – that an otherwise inert pill or medical procedure could cause suffering.

“Simply seeing another patient suffering pain can make a treatment hurt more, suggesting nocebo could pass from person to person by silent observation,” says the BBC’s David Robson, adding that even reading bogus health warnings on a bottle of sugar pills or gossiping about potential threats to our health is enough to prime the mental pump for disease.

This is nothing new. For years we have known that the thought of the patient, sometimes even the thought of the person treating them, is just as important, if not more, than whatever therapy is being administered. What is new is the medical community’s increased determination to find a solution.

As Robson points out, it’s difficult to neutralize someone’s long-held beliefs about health, calling out, among other contributors to the problem, what he considers to be an irresponsible news media for their near-continuous accounts of disease.

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“The press unwittingly sends forth many sorrows and diseases among the human family,” says health reformer Mary Baker Eddy. “It does this by giving names to diseases and by printing long descriptions which mirror images of disease distinctly in thought.”

Eddy suggests that the best protection against such a fear-inducing onslaught can be found in tackling the errant belief itself by exercising our innate if latent ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.

That’s not to say we should wish our way to a better belief, or out of a harmful one, for that matter. The point is to become aware of something better, more real, more convincing, something that actually changes our basis of thinking and keeps us from falling prey to unfounded beliefs that are at the root of misery, physical and otherwise.

After years of experimenting with a number of conventional therapies, Eddy became convinced that her health had a lot less to do with what her body was trying to tell her than what she had been taught since childhood from the Bible, namely, that there is a singular divine influence governing one and all – a benevolent God, or divine Mind, maintaining its own creation, including man.

When put to the test, she found that this shift in consciousness not only got rid of her fear, but also enabled her to see past the myriad health theories of her day and restore a sense of mental and physical well-being, both for herself and others. Years later, there continue to be those who have found this same approach to be effective, both in preventing and curing disease.

Related: It’s not what we say but what we see that heals

Such a change of thought doesn’t always come easily. For Job it took nothing less than a prolonged battle with God himself – or rather, with what he was made by his friends to believe about God.

“Wilt thou condemn me,” God asked Job, “that thou mayest be righteous?” This prompted Job to realize that it wasn’t God but a mistaken understanding of the Divine’s purpose and motive that was responsible for his suffering – the classic nocebo, if you will.

“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,” replied Job, “but now mine eye seeth thee.” In other words, “I get it.”

Not surprisingly, Job’s life took a decided turn for the better after this bit of mental yielding. Certainly there’s no reason why the same principle wouldn’t apply to anyone willing to do the same.

Eric Nelson writes each week on the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Read similar columns on his web site and follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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