Emotional Sabotage - How Your Thoughts Control Your Health

By Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS, MFT

If you could reduce your pain - or even improve your health - by simply changing your thought life, would you do it?

This is not a theoretical question. It’s one based on scientific knowledge and practical experience.

The placebo effect is well known among doctors and patients alike. A placebo is a sham treatment designed to mimic the appearance but not the effect of the real treatment. Except it often does.

This isn’t new information. But a brand new Harvard study has now quantified the incredible effect your beliefs - the placebo effect - can have on your symptoms of pain.

In the study, patients received six envelopes with a pill inside. Two were marked placebo, two were marked Maxalt (a drug for migraine treatment), and two were marked placebo or Maxalt. However, one pill in each set of labeled envelopes was actually a placebo and the other Maxalt.

Here’s the kicker. Regardless of which pill was actually in the envelope, the words on the envelope opened affected the patient’s reduction in pain. Placebo and Maxalt marked as placebo offered a 25% to 35% decrease in pain. Even properly labeled placebos gave some pain relief.

Most interesting, envelopes marked “placebo or Maxalt” had the same 40% pain reduction effect as properly labeled Maxalt, regardless of whether the pill was actually Maxalt or placebo.

Researchers still don’t know exactly how placebos work or why even a labeled placebo works better than no treatment at all. Yet the evidence from numerous studies clearly shows your thoughts and beliefs directly affect your symptoms and speed of recovery up to 80% of the time.

The Placebo Effect’s Evil Twin

The placebo effect shows how a positive attitude affects your ability to recover.

But can a negative attitude slow or even prevent recovery?

Yes. It’s called the nocebo effect. And it’s just as powerful.

Taking only a placebo from a bottle labeled as the real medicine with warnings of side effects is known to cause these medication side effects. Patients given saline water instead of a chemotherapy drug have vomited and even lost their hair. Patients misdiagnosed with terminal illnesses have died, only to discover during autopsy they never had the disease.

Tremendous negative effects. All through the power of suggestion.

How to Influence Your Recovery

What you believe about your health and prospects for recovery makes a Difference.

Yes, there are physical and dietary causes of pain and disease. But your mental state is a critical factor in achieving and maintaining good health.

First, understand and believe that recovery is possible. Never give up. Never think you’ve exhausted every option. It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever exhaust every alternative for recovery from any condition. Not to mention the scientific literature shows numerous examples of even “incurable” diseases … cured.

Second, take positive action. Positive thinking alone is rarely a cure. It’s an assist. Educate yourself on the options available to improve your health. Reading this shows you’re already on the right path. If you need further help, ask.

Finally, consider what negative emotional factors may be contributing to your pain or disease. One fascinating book I’ve found helpful as a resource in determining what specific negative thought patterns are likely behind various disease patterns and how to correct them is Louise L. Hay’s, “Heal Your Body A-Z.” I highly recommend it.


Kam-Hansen S, et al. Altered placebo and drug labeling changes the outcome of episodic migraine attacks. Science Translational Medicine. 2014 Jan 8;6(218):218ra5.

Knox R. Half of a Drug’s Power Comes From Thinking It Will Work. NPR. Jan 10.

Rankin L. The Nocebo Effect: Negative Thoughts Can Harm Your Health. Psychology Today. 2013 Aug 6.

Bingel U., et al. The Effect of Treatment Expectation on Drug Efficacy: Imaging the Analgesic Benefit of the Opioid Remifentanil

All material herein is provided for information only and may not be construed as personal medical advice. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The publisher is not a licensed medical care provider. The information is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in the practice of medicine or any other health-care profession and does not enter into a health-care practitioner/patient relationship with its readers. The publisher is not responsible for errors or omissions.

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