Hope As A Placebo

Mind Over Matter: Hope As A Placebo

Hope acts a placebo, according to Bernard Seigel, MD a renowned cancer specialist is of the opinion that doctors have the following two key contributions to make in the care for their patients


1) Give the patient control over their treatment.

2) Offer hope.


His view is that there is no such thing as false hope –


“hope is real and physiological. It’s something I feel perfectly comfortable giving people no matter what their situation. I know people are alive today because I said to them, you don’t have to die.”


The above statement can trigger one of two responses - you can either be irritated by his seeming arrogance – he is a doctor, and it is God who heals after all; or you can be impressed by his confidence and think- I would like a doctor like that.


The “placebo effect” refers to treatment that has no properties to heal or improve a patient’s condition but is intended to deceive them. The term placebo is derived from Latin meaning “I shall please.” The interesting phenomenon that occurs when a patient is treated in this way is that it often leads to improvement in their medical condition.


In research, placebos are given as part of a control measure and take the form of inert medication or sham operations. The patient’s confidence in the treatment results in a therapeutic effect often leads to their improvement or recovery.


A famous study in 1957 highlighted the extent to which the placebo effect can have a beneficial impact upon the immune system. In the study, a patient with cancer was told that he was being treated with a new drug Kreboizen, which turned out to be water. When he believed that it would cure him, his cancer disappeared. Later, when he heard adverse reports about the drug’s efficacy, his cancer returned. He was then treated with a stronger form of the drug - more of the placebo and his condition went into remission. Eventually when the patient was told that the drug has been withdrawn from use, he died within a few days.


This article is not about exploring the ethics of placebos that falsely peddle hope, it’s focus is to consider the therapeutic effects of hope itself on the mind body and spirit. The bible puts it aptly in Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred make the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled, is a tree of life.”


Seigel summarises his prescription for hope - which is useful to us all whether we are sick or not is as follows:

  • Focus on happiness.

  • Resolve conflicts.

  • Get things off your chest.

  • Seek peace of mind.

  • Aim for a clear conscience.

Seigel describes the telephone test as a means of testing whether there are unresolved issues affecting a patient’s outlook. Although a little morbid- Dr Seigel would ask a patient if they knew they were going to be killed on their way home, would they need to use the telephone to call someone. If the answer was yes, they still have unresolved issues that would impact upon their experience of wellbeing.


Another famous physician, Dr Pelletier, a longevity expert, refers to the need for a “Life Wish” a state of mind which determines an individual’s survival which he believes is rooted in their consciousness. His view is that all states of health and illness involve the mind. To him “psychosomatic” does not mean imaginary or made up, but a key cognitive determinant of health or illness which can programme the person to either live or die.


Pelletier suggests that in addition to improving one’s diet, exercising, and reducing stress; factors such as liking what they do, remaining active and involved in their life and the lives of others contribute to positive life experience. Also, the realisation that there is something greater than the individual self, something spiritual, not necessarily religious dogma, can also give a person a sense that a greater power is able to bring about improvements in their wellbeing.


According to Dr Pelletier, people can develop a life wish by “quieting the mind” by seeing “rest” as equally important as envisioning life as they would like it to be. In other words, exercising faith to believe life as they would wish it to be, rather than how it actually is.


Taking an objective approach to the thought life and letting go of negative and destructive thoughts, being sensitive to the feelings associated with them and the impact on your health are also included in Pelletier’s life prescription. His view is that “we are our own recipe”- with the aim for us to produce something that tastes great and makes us feel good.


Wellbeing Tips

Below are some ways of Improving Health and Wellbeing:

1) Positive thinking - our state of mind can promote health and healing.

2) Trust people - loneliness has a detrimental effect on physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

3) Purpose - think about the unique contribution you can make within your sphere of influence: exercise your strengths, work on your weaknesses.

4) Religion and faith - belief in God and attending church.

5) Forget the things that are behind and press on - focus upon positive changes to the present and the future.

6) Take care of your emotional and physical health- healthy eating, rest, exercise, avoid stimulants, fresh air.

7) Build stronger relationships - with family, friends, through hobbies, interests volunteering/charity work.

8) Get a good balance between work and play- have fun: smile a lot, laugh a lot, do things you enjoy.

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