How the Placebo Effect Can Tank or Torpedo Your Career Dreams

This is a guest post by Lucille Zimmerman. She is a licensed professional counselor and the author of Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World. You can read her blog and follow her on Twitter.

I’m guessing most people have heard of the Placebo Effect. A doctor tells a patient this little pill is going to help cure whatever ails her. But the pill is no medicine at all. It is a sugar pill. The unknowing patient believes she’s going to get better, so she does. It is the positive expectation that creates the cure.

Have you ever thought about what power a placebo really has? The Placebo Effect is not some imaginary thing. A real chemical change happens within a person’s body after taking a sugar pill (or receiving a saline injection, sham procedure, etc.) because the person believes in the medicinal quality.

As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I have long understood the power of placebo. The Placebo Effect is not pretend. Instead, a mental connection is made in the brain, which causes a chemical change in the body. Pharmaceutical companies admit a portion of an antidepressant medication’s power comes from the Placebo Effect.

What if you had the power to improve your business success just by changing what your mind believes?

One of the more interesting books I read in 2013 was Mind over Medicine by Dr. Lissa Rankin. I first heard about Dr. Rankin two years ago after one of my friends shared her TED talk on Twitter. I felt the book I had just finished writing had many comparisons to what Dr. Rankin was preaching.

As a trained medical doctor, whose father was a medical doctor, Rankin relied on medication and medical procedures to heal her patients. Yet, she could not ignore the stories she heard of people who were healed in other ways.

She began to wonder if the mind has some power to heal the body, in addition to medical interventions. What she found was proof that you can radically alter your body’s physiology just by changing your mind. Here are a few of the astonishing Placebo Effect stories she describes in her book:

  • A woman’s cancer shrinks away during radiation. Only afterwards do doctors find out the radiation machine was broken. She believed she was receiving radiation.
  • A man with advanced cancer was filled with tumors in numerous parts of his body. Doctors did not expect him to live out the week. He believed a new drug called Krebiozen could help, so he begged his doctor to give it to him. The patient was too sick to qualify for the drug study but the doctor gave him a placebo injection. The patient’s tumors shrank to half their size.

    For two months the patient raved about the miracle drug, but then read a report that the drug was not effective. The patient fell into depression and his cancer returned. The doctor said he had scored a new batch of highly concentrated medication but injected the patient with distilled water.

    Again, the patient rebounded. Finally, when the American Medical Association announced the drug was worthless, the patient’s cancer quickly returned and he died two days later.

There are hundreds of examples of the Placebo Effect

  • A bald man given a placebo grows hair.
  • A cancer patient is given a placebo instead of chemotherapy and his hair falls out.
  • A patient with nausea was offered a new drug that doctors promised would help cure her. Within minutes the nausea had vanished. What the doctors had really given the patient was ipecac, a substance used for inducing nausea.

Many things are happening under the placebo effect:

  1. The belief that you will get well leads you to feel differently.
  2. Patients in clinical trials receive emotional support and attention—even kind touch—from a respected authority. This likely causes a patient to calm. When the body is in a rested and relaxed state, it can begin to repair itself.

Similar to the medical Placebo Effect, there is a powerful connection between your beliefs of success and failure, and the outcome.

Yesterday I received an email from a young woman. We are both a part of Dr. Phil’s social media team. She’s a go-getter, well spoken, hard working, and she has an important message. She mentioned that in a few years she might submit a query to a literary agent. I told her, “Why wait? If you try now and fail, it doesn’t mean you can’t try again.”

My comments weren’t empty, like a sugar pill, but she seemed to transform in light of them. I sensed a shift in her belief about her own abilities.

Now I’m going to share something vulnerable. I’m a dork, I’m not a detail person, I can’t keep my checkbook balanced, my Facebook friends will tell you how many grammar and spelling mistakes I make.

There are simple events my mind can’t grasp, like why people like or hate the seasonal time changes (you’re still getting eight hours of sleep if you go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake at 6 a.m.), I rebel against group think like creating one word for the New Year, and my kids tease me for never reading a menu (I ask the servers what’s good). But I believe in my book, my counseling and my teaching abilities, and I believe it is my belief—much more than my talents—that has gotten me this far.

It hasn’t always been this way.

People who knew me ten years ago might remember someone who was passive, meek, and afraid to venture outside a three-mile radius. But after doing some emotional work, after being guided by mentors, and after changing what I believe about myself, I am different.

It is the positive expectation that creates the cure.

Question: What do you believe about your future? What do you gain by holding onto beliefs that ultimately do not lead you where you want to be?