The Placebo Effect

According to Merriam-Webster, “the placebo effect” is defined as:

“improvement in the condition of a patient that occurs in response to treatment but cannot be considered due to the specific treatment used”

My first introduction to the term “placebo” came from the classic TV series M*A*S*H. In this particular episode (s6e20, “Major Topper” to be exact), the staff scramble to provide pain relief to their patients after they discover they were given a bad batch of morphine. After much discussion, they decided to put something called the “placebo effect” into action. They gave each of their desperate patients a sugar pill and told them that it’s a new, extremely powerful pain medication.

Of course, being a television show, it worked to perfection. All twenty or so wounded soldiers felt immediate pain relief and the Hawkeye, Hunnicutt, and Nurse Houlihan all saved the day. The patients went on to full recovery and the doctors all got a good medical journal paper out of it. Win win win win.

The long and short definition of the term could be better stated as: the patient got better despite the treatment provided, so it doesn’t count. But hey, we’ll still take credit for it.

It is the one thing that has always bothered me about the term; it is too often used with dismissal and a certain amount of derision. Like the M*A*S*H episode, it felt like trickery and western medicine condescension. See, you weren’t really that bad off. You got better with a sugar pill or two. You’re fine. Go on back to the Front now.

It is often applied to alternative medicine and the new-age/hippy woo community and healing practices as well. That crystal/those herbs/Reiki isn’t doing anything to heal you; it’s all in your mind. It’s the placebo effect.

Automatic dismissal. Even though to this individual they are seeing a difference, feeling results. But it doesn’t count because your mind is making you feel better, not the stone/herb/energy work.

I call bullhockey.

If you feel a difference, if you feel better, then it doesn’t matter. The treatment was successful. End of story. Mind over matter is not just a catch phrase, it is a legitimate phenomenon. What happens in the mind lives in the body, so it only makes sense that the mind can also fix the body.

Western medicine is still catching up to “alternative” medicine in many ways. Eastern medical traditions have long known that focusing on the symptoms does little for long term success; you’ve got to figure out the reasons behind the symptoms. Sometimes the reasons for the physical are mental and emotional. When that’s the case, they treat the mental and emotional and the physical symptoms are cured.

Sometimes all the mind needs is a focal point (drishti in yogic philosophy). If that means using crystals or other non-traditional forms of healing to focus your mind, then that’s fine. Whatever works. Meditation and mindfulness have been proven to help with healing time and again. In those cases the drishti is internal: focus on your breath, that point between your eyebrows, the moment right in front of you.

It is nothing more or less than being in touch with your own Self. That is where the deepest healing comes from, and that can be subtle shifts or profound releases.

Now, of course I’m not saying to rely solely on your mind in lieu of life-saving treatments. If you’ve got a tumor that needs removing, please have it removed by trained medical professionals. There is room in any treatment protocol for multiple kinds of healing. It’s good that both sides (alternative and allopathic alike) realize this.

In the end, the healing that works for you is the right healing. No matter where it comes from or how it looks. Just because it can’t currently be quantified does not mean it isn’t valid. Healing that is successful is valid, whether it ends up being surgery or pretty stones.

Healing is healing.

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Some of my pretty stones. And feathers. And sea glass.