Medical Hexing: Sounds like Voodoo, doesn’t it? Essentially it may very well be,
And why is it a real threat to your health?
We are all familiar with the placebo effect, but we may not be aware of the nocebo effect – the placebo’s “evil twin.”
The word placebo literally means “I Will Please.” This psychological phenomenon refers to the power of an individual’s positive belief to influence the outcome of a treatment or medication. The recipient’s personal expectation is, in itself, responsible for the positive results.
Studies demonstrating the power of the placebo effect are extensive, varied, and quite fascinating. These include “sham surgery.”
Numerous trials of sham surgery have had positive results. In a Finnish study published in 2013, sham surgery was performed on patients suffering from torn knee ligaments, and in severe pain. Although the sham surgery patients were anesthetized, surgeons went through the whole ritual of an operation in meticulous detail, passing instruments and making the normal sounds associated with an operation. But the incision was closed without any procedure taking place.
Some patients DID have the surgical procedure, and the results were compared. No significant difference was found between them. Patients who had the sham surgery reported the same degree of pain relief and improved function as those who actually received the surgical intervention.
The word nocebo means “I Will Harm.” It was the study of the power of suggestion in the practice of voodoo that led Harvard researcher Walter Cannon to study the phenomenon in the 1940s, and in 1961 Harvard researcher Walter Kennedy coined the term nocebo.
The following quote shares one example of what is now referred to as Medical Hexing.
“The nocebo effect is probably most obvious in “voodoo death,” when a person is cursed, told they will die, and then dies. The notion of voodoo death doesn’t just apply to witch doctors in tribal cultures. The literature shows that patients believed to be terminal who are mistakenly informed that they have only a few months to live have died within their given time frame, even when autopsy findings reveal no physiological explanation for the early death.” Lissa Rankin, M.D.
Many, if not most, of us are exposed to subtle, yet powerful, forms of medical hexing. Examining the relationships we have with our health care practitioners is a first step in addressing this important concern.
Practitioners may or may not realize that the way they choose to interact with their patients can in itself foster healing (placebo) or harm (nocebo).
The practitioner’s body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions may also induce harm.
We want our health care practitioners to be honest with us. But practitioners must be mindful of how they frame information.
Leaving our doctor’s office “scared to death” or “worried sick” impacts our physiology. When we hear that our illness “has no cure and that there is nothing we can do except learn to live with it,” etc. etc. we are experiencing a type of medical hexing.
A strong, affirming collaborative relationship and effective dialogue between doctor and patient strengthens the placebo response leading the patient to a sense of well-being and safety.
“The physician’s words not only describe reality, but…modify and create reality.” Gerben Meynen
So how can we use this information to empower us and promote optimal wellness while steering clear of medical hexing?
- Acknowledge that you have the ability to choose to cultivate your own wellness through your beliefs, mindset and attitude.
- When you are with your doctor do you feel heard and supported? How do you feel after you visit with her/him? If you notice new tightness and discomfort in your body along with thoughts of gloom and doom, pay attention!
- Trusting your practitioner is essential. You may want to speak with him/her about your desire for them to be more encouraging, reassuring and supportive. Continuing an unsatisfactory relationship is dangerous!
- Notice the way you think about your symptoms and the meaning you give them. When your thoughts revolve around stories of victimhood like “I’m never going to feel better, and I’m stuck with this condition” you may indeed be hexing yourself!
- Limit your exposure to internet support groups that can be helpful but often open the door to more victimization.
- Pay attention to everything that is truly going “right” for you: “I get up, brush my teeth, eat breakfast, etc. Focus on what you CAN do and what really IS okay most of the time.
And as always, remember, YOU hold the key!