Positive psychology and New Age ideas about health and healing have flooded the internet and bookstore shelves in recent years. But as a doctor who wrote a science-based book about the physiology of the body’s natural healing process, it strikes me that some of what’s out there is giving the idea that the body can heal itself a bad rap.
Why do I say that? Well, there’s a lot of pseudo-science and quasi-psychology masquerading as real data, when people are hungry for truth. Here’s some help debunking popular myths that may confuse what’s real.
1. It’s “just the placebo effect.”
Just the placebo effect? Why do people say “placebo” as if it’s a four-letter word? Don’t they understand that the placebo effect is proof positive that the body is brilliantly equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, fight infectious agents, and retard aging? And don’t they realize that even if a clinical trial fails to demonstrate that a drug or surgery or alternative medicine treatment is better than a placebo, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t “work” when 18-80% of the time, the body heals itself when given a sugar pill or saline injection in a clinical trial. And that’s GREAT NEWS!
The placebo effect needs a major image overhaul. I suggest we call it the “self-healing effect” to remind ourselves that it’s just a measurable phenomena related to the body’s known self-repair mechanisms.
2. The placebo effect is all in your mind
While thoughts, beliefs, and feelings originating in the mind can activate placebo-like “self-healing effects” in the body, the placebo effect doesn’t just make people feel better; it effects measurable outcomes in the body’s physiology. When patients are treated with sugar pills, saline injections, and fake surgeries, warts disappear. Colons become less inflamed. Bronchi dilate. Bald men even grow hair.
It’s not just in your mind. It’s in your body.
3. Placebo effects only happen to gullible people
Nope. All of us are susceptible to placebo effects. In fact, some studies suggest that people with higher IQ’s may be even more susceptible than average. The only ones who seem to be relatively immune to placebo effects are those with Alzheimer’s.
4. You can heal yourself
To say you can heal yourself is kind of a misnomer. As I elucidate in great detail in Chapter 3 of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, the data suggests that your body can heal itself, but it does so much more effectively when the process is facilitated by the right kinds of healers who support the body’s self-healing process. These may include doctors and nurses, but they may also include therapists, acupuncturists, energy healers, naturopaths, shamans, and many other modalities of healing practitioners. A combination of positive belief on the part of your provider and nurturing care that leaves your amygdala feeling calm and safe has been scientifically proven to improve health outcomes.
5. Doctors don’t use placebos in clinical practice
Psych! Approximately 50% of doctors admit to using placebos in clinical practice, usually without the patient’s consent. They’re not trying to be sneaky. Those who do this are just trying to help. (For example, when a patient has maxed out her pain medication and will be at risk if she gets more, a doctor may inject saline into her IV and tell her it’s morphine. Very often, she gets relief.)
It’s not always a sugar pill or a saline injection. Sometimes, instead, it’s a drug known to be ineffective for the condition being treated or a vitamin proven not to work.
It’s an ethical dilemma for doctors, and many are conflicted about their choices, but if you think it doesn’t happen in medical offices, think again.
6. If you can’t heal yourself, you’ve done something wrong
No! No! No! While thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that originate in the mind can trigger stress responses in the body that deactivate the body’s natural self-healing processes, predisposing the body to illness, the presence of illness does not mean that you’ve been a bad patient with bad thoughts and you deserve a cosmic spanking.
There’s no place for blame, shame, or guilt when it comes to the healing process. Such thoughts only trigger more stress responses. As Dr. Christiane Northrup says, “We are responsible to our illness, not for our illness.” Instead of blaming yourself, try asking yourself, “Is there a lesson I might learn from my health condition?” or “If my illness had a message to deliver me, what would it tell me?”
If the answer to both questions is “Nada,” cool beans. Even if your health condition has something to teach you, it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It means you’re doing something very right by allowing illness to be an opportunity for awakening.
7. Healing yourself is all quantum physics
I’m studying energy medicine and what I’m learning fascinates me. But I think there’s a tendency to try to explain everything with science, when perhaps some things are better explained in spiritual terms. These days it seems like everyone and her mother is referencing quantum physics as the explanation for things some may find hard to believe or understand. But perhaps we need to cultivate our tolerance for ambiguity, rather than trying to couch what we don’t fully understand in pseudo-scientific language that just gets the scientists up in arms.
In other words, if you’re gonna quote science, make sure you get it right. Don’t throw scientific language around if you’re not really sure what you’re talking about.
8. All illness results from past life karma
I’m learning all about past lives after recently meeting psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss, author of Many Lives, Many Masters, with whom I had the privilege of experiencing a past life regression when we were both speaking at Hay House’s I Can Do It! conference in Atlanta. (Read about my past life regression here). I’m not dissing past lives or suggesting that we can’t learn a lot about how we’re behaving in this life by looking at the arc of our soul’s journey in past ones. Whether past life regressions illuminate real past lives or are metaphors for what our soul is here to learn in this one, I think they can be profoundly healing to body, mind, and soul.
But to suggest that all illnesses are the result of bad karma we inherit from things we did “wrong” in past lives strikes me as off base. It sounds too much like blame, and if you're an 8 year old who has leukemia or you just got hit by a semi and are now paralyzed, the last thing you need to hear is that past life karma is striking you down in this life.
9. Illnesses that resolve without medical treatment are the result of miracles and magic
While I’m not denying the presence of Divine intervention and miracles (I believe!), and while I’m certainly open to the possibility of magic, the body’s ability to heal itself can be explained with pure physiology. The people in the medical literature who experience spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable” illnesses aren’t just lucky. Instead of learning helplessness and sitting back passively, feeling like victims, many of them chose to be proactive about increasing their odds of spontaneous remission. (Read here to learn the 6 behaviors people who experience spontaneous remission from Stage 4 cancer have in common).
Mind Over Medicine explains in great detail the physiology of how such behaviors influence the amygdala in your brain, which affects hormones in your blood stream, and affects every cell in your body. While magic may exist, when the mind is optimally healthy, the body may follow.
10. It’s all about cure
Yes, when we’re sick, it’s natural to focus on how much relief we’d feel if only the disease would vaporize completely. But what if there’s a deeper sense of peace we can access when we let go of the need to control outcomes and instead, surrender to what is, while simultaneously doing everything within our power to make our bodies ripe for cure?
Kris Carr and I will be appearing together on a DVD that we’re filming this week as part of a public television special about Mind Over Medicine. In preparation for our interview, I asked her how she handles the fact that she’s done everything “right” on her healing journey, but she still has Stage 4 cancer. Kris eloquently told me that she long ago relinquished the attachment to cure, choosing instead to define success as thriving, with or without cancer. Within such surrender, true healing lies.