In the world of alternative medicine the word “placebo” seems to hang over all our heads like a curse. It is very common for first time acupuncture patients to say to me “I don’t know if it is the acupuncture, but I am feeling better lately.” They are so busy fearing that they will be fooled by their own traitorous mind that they can’t fully appreciate their new wellness.
These days there is more and more research about what “the placebo effect” really consists of and what could actually affect it. Patient-practitioner relationship is a hot topic for research right now, though very difficult to quantify and analyze. The other elusive and ethereal concept is that of mindset and mindfulness of the patient during treatment. But there are vague in-between concepts that I think are worth contemplating in society and relationships, not just in the medical field. The fact is we are all caregivers and supports for our loved ones. Occasionally we need to rely on the placebo effect in order to achieve small miracles in our daily life.
In fact, what I am arguing today is that compassion and deep intuitive listening might be more important than the right diagnoses or course of treatment.
Even dirtier than the word placebo is the concept that we need to be cared for when we are ailing. Our society is all about independence and toughing it out. Even our medicine system requires proof, with a series of tests, that you actually are sick before you can receive treatment. If they can’t find anything, you don’t really have pain.
The verbs in Chinese Medicine are particularly artistic and beautiful. One moves qi, quickens the blood, nourishes the blood, tonifies the qi, and boosts the yang. It has brought the word “nourish” into my vocabulary in a very different way than it ever had been. All pain and weakness needs deep nourishing in order to fully heal. In daily life most of us are afraid or embarrassed to contemplate what we need to nourish our bodies in order to prevent illness, but what is also necessary to recover from injuries.
I may be a yoga teacher and an acupuncturist, but really I simply nourish people. I find out where they are weakest and I bring the specific type of nourishment and nurturing to that area. It is the reason people almost always show some improvement between the time they talk with me on the phone seeking services and their first appointment. I understand that healing is in the details.
Think of these common concepts:
- Food tastes better when eaten outside.
- Anything picked from one’s garden will taste better than buying the same thing at the store.
- It is easier to be happy when the sun is shining.
- The visual healing properties of flowers as gifts.
- The healing power of being told someone will pray for you or keep you in their heart.
- Chicken soup.
- A good night’s sleep is the best medicine.
- Feeling better as soon as you taste the medicine in your mouth.
- Feeling better the second after you call in sick for work.
It is hard to know if these are examples of placebos or if they are a subtle way of deeply nourishing the soul. Do people actually get better on my treatment table because I don’t use table paper and instead use soft sheets? You might think maybe, but if I showed you pictures of the images I see when I walk into the treatment room after the needles have been in for a while and see arms flung wide, muscles at ease and a face softened by deep, full rest you would know for sure. Healing has to happen on many levels for the nervous system to accept the change.
Recently the big change I’m making in my practice is critiquing patients on the way they language and articulate their current condition. If you think language can’t make a difference read this article and make sure to watch the associated video on the effect of language on rice in water.
The use of mantra meditation is another great example of placebo. Saying something over and over the body starts to believe it. If you believe it, you can achieve it. Why is that the mind playing tricks on the body? Why isn’t that mindful, intentional change?
I’m not in the practice of fooling people. The medicine I practice is at times almost magical. It still gets me a little giggly from time to time, though I try my best to act cool and unimpressed. I chose this medicine because I’ve tried lots of things and this worked the best with my energies, intellect and temperament.
Plenty of people have walked through my door and decided, even though they were paying me for treatments, that they were not ready to be well. Those people did not get better and I was not surprised. It was more important to them to prove the acupuncture didn’t work and that their bodies were incurable rather than trust that healing is possible whenever we are ready to heal. Is that also a type of placebo? Isn’t all research flawed by the small portion of people in every research study that unconsciously want to fail and not show improvement?
Whether you are a parent or caring for someone you love who is ailing, there is some small role of caregiver and health care practitioner in us all. There really is something in the small acts of listening, using a gentle tone of voice, validating a person’s struggle, making someone laugh, bringing beauty into their living space and assisting them to find physical comfort. Sometimes those small things are the best medicine.
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