You are the Nocebo and the Placebo

The Nocebo Effect : A DETRIMENTAL effect on health produced by psychological or psychosomatic factors such as negative expectations.

The Placebo Effect : A POSITIVE effect on health produced by psychological or psychosomatic factors such as positive expectations.

The Meet Up

Two nights ago, I went to my first ever MS group meet up.

Two nights ago, for the first time in a long time, I had MS symptoms.  

I didn’t know what to expect walking in and was caught off guard when the onslaught of MS questions started…

When were you diagnosed? 

What are your symptoms? 

What drugs are you on? 

…were the first three questions everyone seemed to ask.  This was quickly followed by a history of their own symptoms.  The effects of MS were clearly visible in most and they covered a very wide range of possibilities.  From my personal vantage point the scenario felt like a competition of sorts to see who had the most, and worst, symptoms.  And if you were lucky enough to be light in any symptom categories, it felt like it was only a matter of time.

The Nocebo EFFECT

It was overwhelming to say the least.  I instantly felt a surge of adrenaline as my fight or flight instinct kicked in.  At first, symptoms I was frighteningly familiar with started to bubble up; my face tingled, my cheeks went numb, I felt as if a river of poison undulated under my skin from head to toe, I began to feel dizzy.  Then as my sense of panic grew I sat on a knife’s edge waiting for new and unfamiliar sensations to arise; waiting for the MS “hug” a dreaded boa constrictor-like squeeze around the torso, my speech slurring, face drooping, tingling spreading to my arms and legs, losing strength and function in my arms and legs, paralysis…the list was too long and my thoughts too out of control.  I wanted to yell, to run, to disappear into thin air.

The Placebo EFFECT

I didn’t fight and I didn’t take flight.  Instead I turned to all of the tools and tricks I’ve cultivated on my yoga mat.  I sat back and observed the scene while turning my attention to my breath.

I could feel the cool sensation at the tip of my nostrils as air entered my body.  I followed the air down as it filled my lungs.  My shoulders rose gently.  My belly rose gently.  I let the breath nourish my body as I followed the sensation of filling up all the way to my fingertips and my toes.

I consciously allowed the breath to leave more slowly than it came in, gently coaxing the rest and relax response of my parasympathetic nervous system to engage.  With every exhale I took my awareness deeper and deeper into my body.  Allowing myself to first feel then consciously calm the emotions that had arisen. And with the calming of the chemical reactions I came back to my body.  The numbness and tingling faded.  The poisonous river that was undulating beneath my skin dried up.  The dizziness dissipated and my gut found stillness.

The role of Placebo in Western Medicine

I’ve always believed in both the placebo and the nocebo effect.  The power of the mind to steer the body to heal or harm itself astounds me. What I’ve always found intriguing is that in the West the word Placebo carries the connotation that your body is doing something a drug should be doing, in essence, ignoring that in fact your mind and body are capable of healing themselves.

“A placebo is anything that seems to be a “real” medical treatment — but isn’t. It could be a pill, a shot, or some other type of “fake” treatment. What all placebos have in common is that they do not contain an active substance meant to affect health.”

Aren’t those drugs merely mimicking something in nature and within our bodies that can happen naturally? And if those things can happen naturally,  why is it such a leap to think that we can have an impact on our own healing, the placebo if you will, or self-harm, the nocebo?

I had my first recognised MS episode in 2015 and was officially diagnosed in 2016.  Without hesitation, in 2015 preceding the complete diagnosis which followed in 2016, my neurologist recommended I start taking MS drugs.  Much to his disappointment, which has turned into an ongoing theme with us, I turned the offer down.  I started educating myself on alternative approaches to managing and curing MS; diet, lifestyle, yoga, meditation, emotional healing and more. Before long I firmly came to believe that MS is curable and at the very least manageable through approaches that help your body heal itself.

Two nights ago, I had a very real example of how powerful our minds can be.  First the nocebo, as my mind and body went into MS mode based on a mental interpretation and subsequent chemical reaction in my body resulting from an onslaught of real tangible MS symptoms around me.  Then the placebo, as I consciously tapped into my central nervous system to tell my body to relax, let go and come back to itself.  Did I really have symptoms to start with?  Was I having a panic attack?  Does it really matter which it was?   I consciously stopped to change something in my body by focussing my mind.  For me that speaks volumes in itself.

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