Most people are aware of the placebo effect, when a treatment with no medicinal value results in healing due to the patient's belief, trust, and confidence in that treatment. Fewer people are familiar with the corresponding nocebo effect, which is defined as: "a harmless substance having harmful, undesirable, and adverse effects on health."
It's important to realize just how powerful the nocebo effect can be, particularly in the form of words. There are documented cases where a misdiagnosis has caused someone's health to decline rapidly, even to the point of death. We truly need to guard against unwarranted negative beliefs that compromise our health and well-being.
Here are some areas to watch out for, where the nocebo effect can crop up through negative language and interactions.
Watch Your Thoughts and Self-Talk
If you're constantly anticipating the worst when it comes to your health, you may actually be leading yourself towards the very outcome you're trying to avoid. It's one thing to be proactive in taking responsibility for one's health and well-being; this is completely appropriate and highly beneficial. For instance, if you know certain illnesses tend to run in your family, there may be practical steps you can take to reduce or balance that risk.
What you don't want is to get into a state of continual worry or anxiety, because you're constantly thinking about what might happen in future. That type of ongoing stress can actually weaken your system, making you more vulnerable to health issues in the long term.
Watch Your Response to Online Health Content
There are a variety of great online resources that can help you manage your health more effectively. Along with acquiring tips for more healthful living, these resources can alert you to changes and symptoms that should be taken seriously. In some cases, following up with a health care provider to address seemingly minor symptoms can sometimes result in the early detection of potentially serious issues. However, you don't want to get carried away and assume that you're suffering from every serious illness that you read about, just because a symptom sounds vaguely familiar.
Watch How You Converse with Friends and Family
If you have a friend or family member who loves to rush in with a dire diagnosis whenever you have a minor health complaint, beware! We all have good and bad days, and any number of things can leave us feeling a little off kilter from time to time. A sudden or dramatic change in one's health, for no apparent reason, may legitimately warrant further attention. But constantly being nudged and prodded into a panic over minor ailments isn't constructive.
Watch Your Communication With Health Care Providers
Wherever possible, seek out health care providers that are supportive in their approach. Negative suggestions such as "You'll never recover from this" or "You'll never be able to get off this medication" can have a huge impact on the mental state of the patient. With such an air of finality, such comments can make it difficult to retain a sense of hope, and very difficult to entertain the possibility of an alternative outcome.
Obviously a health care provider needs to be clear and factual in addressing any health issues you may have. However, your inner wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of your own body should not be discounted. You should never be discouraged from investing in your own healing, and no-one has a right to take away your hope.
The concept of mind over matter runs both ways, with the ability to have both positive and negative consequences. When it comes to our health, the need to be mindful of both our self-talk, as well as our interactions with others, cannot be understated. It really can mean the difference between health and healing vs. harm.
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