The backstory to my recent interest in placebos is a recent parenting WIN that I’m still patting myself on the back for. I have a 4 year old daughter who has recently been scaring herself out of her wits before bed every night with fears of potentially having bad dreams. It usually starts with her thinking of something scary about an hour before bed, and then by the time we’re brushing her teeth she has tears rolling down her cheeks, she’s shaking in her metaphorical boots, and snot is flying.
I tried everything to make the fear stop. The last time it happened, the big scary things in her mind were hornets. I told her it’s 20 degrees outside – there are no hornets. She countered with, it’s warm in the house, they could be in the house! OMG they could be in the house!!! I told her I can count on exactly 1 finger the number of times I’ve been stung by a hornet, and I’m like, old as dirt. That didn’t help either. So then I told her that I know of an old home remedy that stops bad dreams. She said that she wanted to try it. I told her that it tastes reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal bad, because medicine has to taste bad to chase away bad dreams. She said that she still wanted to give it a go. We went into the kitchen so that I could mix up the medicine – it was mostly pickle juice, with yellow mustard and a splash of lime juice mixed in to up the yuck factor. She swallowed her dose, and complained that it wasn’t working. I told her to give it a minute, and then to tell me what good thing her brain was thinking about. She was quiet. Her face contorted like she was concentrating very hard. Then she blurted out, “FLOWERS! Mommy, I’m thinking about FLOWERS!!!” The tears stopped, and she was all smiles and sunshine until bed. In fact, the medicine was so potent that I haven’t even had to give her another dose since. The power of the placebo, friends.
So how exactly can we use placebos to make our days and lives better? Well, I got some great ideas from an article I read at CNN Health titled “3 ways to use the placebo effect to have a better day.” Here’s my take: First tip – stop stressing so much. My daughter felt real, palpable fear at the prospect of having bad dreams, even though the bad dream didn’t really happen. The same thing works with us grown folks and stress. When we move through our days fixated on the negative – the work we haven’t finished, the diets that we didn’t follow, the quality time we didn’t arrange with our family– well, it’s no wonder that we feel terrible about ourselves. Try reframing your focus. Look for the good stuff that you DID do, and allow yourself to feel good for those accomplishments. Think of the work you finished, the vegetables you ate and the water you drank, the snuggles you got from your kids before the craziness of the day began, the small things that you did to improve the days of your family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Those good things are just as real as the negative ones, and I would argue EVEN MORE important, so give them their chance to shine in the spotlight. Your day might not have actually been super productive, but you did do some good things, and just acknowledging that fact will help you face tomorrow with a smile on your face.
Tip 2 – Love on yourself. A lot of times when people think about changing the world for better, they think big picture – tackling huge problems, raising tons of money, galvanizing oodles of people on crusades for a better tomorrow. That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s not going to happen if you don’t take care of yourself first. There is absolutely zero shame in taking time out for YOU. Exercise. Do a hobby to rest your mind. Focus on making yourself healthy foods. Take a friggin’ nap. You’ll feel better and more energized, and you’ll be better able to focus on the good stuff that you want to accomplish. Then here comes the placebo kicker… you don’t even *actually* have to do these things all the time. For example, don’t fret if you can’t manage to get your 6 servings of veggies in today! Instead, write lists of the things that you do that are good for you – for example, took a multivitamin, walked to a meeting and got more Vitamin D, diffused essential oils, opted for broccoli instead of fries at lunch. The placebo effect won’t actually replace the fiber and vitamins from your missing veggies, but it will make you feel like your feet are firmly planted on the health and wellness train, and you just might do a better job of crunching on some leafy greens rather than chocolate chip cookies tomorrow.
Tip 3 – Practice optimism. This is a little bit different from tip #1 about being less stressed. This is more big picture stuff, like refusing to believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. This is a concerted effort to seek out the good news, to acknowledge the good folks who are out there every day, doing good things. The good things might not necessarily be happening to you personally, but the knowledge that people are committed to good, day in and day out, WILL give you a more positive outlook. It will likely make you feel happier. And then you’ll feel like you can do anything! You’ll find yourself doing good stuff too! And that’s AWESOME my friend. That’s the good stuff that makes the world go around, and YOU ARE PART of the forward momentum.
The bottom line is that placebo effect research tells us that having positive expectations reduces things like anxiety and harmful thoughts and behaviors. There’s a great article over at themindunleashed.org titled “How to Hack the Placebo Effect.” Far from baitclick fodder, the article mentions a number of great placebo hacking strategies – practicing mindfulness is one. People who regularly visualize themselves as in optimal health are probably healthier. Similarly, I would imagine that people who regularly visualize themselves living in a caring community probably have stronger social networks and support systems. When you condition yourself to expect a reality, you are more likely to alter actual factual behaviors that will yield the outcomes you anticipate. Another hacking strategy is to expect reward, and to feel as if you deserve it. We all have little negative Nancy’s in our subconscious that tell us that the good stuff just isn’t meant for us. SHUT HER DOWN. Tell yourself that you’re good enough and smart enough, and while you’re at it, that your neighbors are too, and before you know it, there will be no stopping you!
I know your question – but Alysia, if you know it’s a placebo, it’s not going to work, right? We can’t just trick our brains into thinking that everything is hunky dory when we know it’s not! Look, applying the notion of a placebo to improve your day and to make the world a better place does not equate to burying your head in the sand. Yeah, we all do things that are destructive to ourselves and to the world we live in, and there’s a lot of pain and anguish alive and well. But science has shown that even when patients’ symptoms are improving and they are told that their medication is merely a placebo, patients’ positive indicators for improved health keep on keeping on. People keep getting better – they don’t slide backward. The reason you can apply the placebo effect to yourself even though you know it’s a placebo is because of conditioning. Every attempt to try a placebo mindset – whether it be through practicing optimism or meditation to increase your mindfulness – in each one of these, you are altering your behavior, and conditioning yourself to see and move through the world a little bit differently. Turns out, practice really does make perfect.
Remember that placebos aren’t a one-size fits all solution for everyone, but we’re not talking about curing cancer here… we’re talking about trying to be better people. It certainly won’t hurt you to try some of the tips and strategies I talked about in the Good Ten Minutes, and I can definitely anticipate some notable benefits if you give them a try. I’d love to hear your feedback, or your experiences with practicing mindfulness, reducing stress, and the like. What good came of it? Join the conversation over on Facebook – we’re goodandgraciousco there, and be sure to sign up for The Good Letter over on www.goodandgraciousco.com to say up-to-date with the blog. As always, thanks for listening!