Photo:Michael Maggs Edited by Richard Bartz
Yoga and The Nocebo Effect
Yoga soothes pain by interrupting inaccurate brain chemistry.
Many of us are familiar with the concept of placebos. We think of them as sugar pills, something we take that makes us feel better. Because we think a placebo isn’t “real medicine,” when placebos works it seems to prove that our pain wasn’t “real” either. We decide there was nothing “really” wrong in the first place.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Armoring against pain actually intensifies sensation
An Italian researcher in Turin, Dr. Fabrizio Benedetti, has been working on very specific aspects of the actions of placebos in our brains and body chemistry. When we have an expectation, it causes significant changes in our body chemistry and neurological structure. According to research on “the nocebo effect” reported in the journal Neuroscience, these changes and their effects can and do produce physical pain.
Dr. Benedetti writes, “The nocebo effect is a phenomenon that is opposite to the placebo effect, whereby expectation of a negative outcome may lead to the worsening of a symptom.”
I know I’m just too sensitive
It’s misguided at best to criticize yourself for having expectations. One of the reasons for the existence of the human brain is to recall and evaluate the past to determine the likelihood of change in the current moment. Our survival depends on this skill and it’s not useful or sane to believe that making it go away is some kind of yoga for self-improvement let alone a sacred opportunity.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert asserts, “‘making future’ is the most important thing” the brain does.
What yoga and meditation offer is the possibility of interrupting and recalibrating inaccurate brain chemistry.
For some people, neurotransmitters overdose the body with sensitivity. Self criticism makes it worse. Noticing that the overdosing occurs and working with your own body to alter your stress responses when they are initiated, can create meaningful relief from physical pain and emotional suffering.
Managing pain sooner is better because it’s more effective
Practicing yoga fosters self-awareness so you can interrupt the reactivity cycle early, as it begins, rather than hating yourself when reactivity and body chemistry are in full swing.
“Recent experimental evidence indicates that negative verbal suggestions induce anticipatory anxiety about the impending pain increase,” Benedetti goes on, in a paper which describes patients who have been told their condition may be worsening or may not be responding to care.
He continues, “This verbally-induced anxiety triggers the activation of cholecystokinin (CCK) which, in turn facilitates pain transmission.” In other words, our expectation of pain or poor results changes in our bodies in ways that cause us to experience more pain.
Awareness is powerful against suffering
Benedetti concludes, “All these findings underscore the important role of cognition in the therapeutic outcome, and suggest that nocebo and nocebo-related effects might represent a point of vulnerability both in the course of a disease and in the response to a therapy.”
What you believe has serious, real effects on your life, right down to how effective a “real” medicine is going to be when you take it.
Source: Neuroscience; June 2007, Vol. 147 Issue 2, p260-271, 12p
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.