Everybody knows about placebos and the placebo effect. If you think the little pill will help you, it often does—even when there’s no medicine in it. But I’d never heard of a nocebo, until last week when it showed up in my email box. “Nocebo” was my word for the day. “A substance producing harmful effects in someone because it is believed to be harmful, but which in reality is harmless.”
Curious, I did a little research. “Nocebo” was coined by researchers almost 50 years ago. Modeled after the Latin placebo (“I will please”), nocebo (“I will harm”) demonstrates the power of the mind and spirit not only for good but, alas, for ill. It just stands to reason: if the mind can will its own healing with the mere suggestion of a placebo, it can also will its own disease at the slightest suspicion of threat.
Fifteen years ago researchers discovered that women who believed they were at risk for heart disease were nearly four times as likely to die as women with a similar risk profile who did not share their worries. Here was a documented case where a higher risk of death is unrelated to the usual factors—weight, age, blood pressure, cholesterol. What matters is belief. If you think you’re going to get sick, you probably will.
Or consider this one. About twenty years ago doctors at three medical centers set up a study on aspirin. They cautioned one group taking aspirin that gastrointestinal problems were the most common side effect from prolonged use of aspirin (which is true). The other group got just the aspirin without the side effects speech. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that the group who got the warning was almost three times as likely to suffer the side effect.
This is tricky. Some threats are real, legitimate. And we have an obligation to inform people of such risks. But somehow we over-emphasize the risks. That’s what I’m thinking every time I practically undress to get on an airplane. There’s no shortage of high risks these days, things a really well-informed person is obliged to fear. Financial collapse, germs and disease, extreme weather, rising seas, genetically-modified food, immigrants, anyone who looks “Muslim.”
The nocebo effect means it’s quite possible to be “worried sick.” Is there a real threat? Maybe. We can’t always tell. But what we do know is, if you think you’re likely to get sick or be hurt, you probably will.
Be careful, then, what you fear—even what you choose to know. Be careful what you tell your kids to fear. Because some things with only the potential for harm can hurt us if we obsess about them.
That goes for physical substances as well as ideas, concepts and beliefs. Evil has only the power we give it. This is why Augustine defined evil as simply the absence of the good. In other words, evil has no objective reality. It only exists when people forsake the good. You can argue this philosophically (“Is there such a thing as pure, objective evil?”) but all I know is: what you fear you empower. When we try to “protect” ourselves by managing risks and parrying threats, we’re living in the negative, pouring our energies into the darkness.
So relax. Drop your fears. Put your faith in Someone beyond your tiny self. Trust that no matter what may threaten, you’re going to be all right—that is God’s promise. When we live in that kind of love—it’s nocebo no more.