One of my favorite English teacher’s in high school once shared that her grandmother was a voodoo witch doctor who apprenticed her in the art but she walked away from it. When we asked her why, my teacher said she couldn’t stand to watch people get sick and die because of a voodoo curse. “Do voodoo curses really work?” we asked and she said that they did through the power of suggestion.
There are many documented cases of people dying of curses from all over the world and a few more studies to back them, which I will site below. These studies have been used to explain the nacebo effect which happens when people are told about the harmful effects of a drug or disease, and this causes them to experience those effects. We know that if we believe that something will make us better, even if it is only water or a sugar pill, there is a much greater chance that it will. This is known as the placebo effect. The nacebo effect is the belief that something that is harmless will harm you and that placebo effect is the belief that something that has no healing properties will help you. Nacebo creates negative consequences and placebo positive ones. Basically, our beliefs are a huge indicator of how well we heal or how ill we become.
Another example of the nacebo effect was an incident at a ball game where someone got horribly ill and everyone believed it was the food. The whole audience started feeling nausea and even vomited, believing that the food had poisoned them. When the news spread that the cause of illness was not the food, everyone felt better.
Clifton Meador, a doctor at Vanerbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, documented many cases of the nacebo effect including the one of Sam Shoeman who was diagnosed with end stage liver cancer in the 1970s and was given only months to live. When he died exactly at his allotted time, an autopsy showed that the tumor never spread. “He didn’t die from cancer, but from believing he was dying of cancer,” Meador stated. “If everyone treats you as if you are dying, you buy into it. Everything in your whole being becomes about dying.”
There was a study published in 2007 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine by Irving Kirsch and Giuliana Mazzoni of the University of Hull in the UK. They asked a group of students to inhale some air that they were told contained a “suspected environmental toxin,” linked to headache, nausea, itchy skin and drowsiness. Half the students watched a woman inhale the air and supposedly develop the symptoms. The results showed that the students who inhaled the normal air and were told that it was a toxin were more likely to get symptoms. The ones who watched the woman get symptoms were even more likely to get symptoms themselves. This result has been compared to many mass psychogenic illnesses in which word of a virus gets out and people get sick without being exposed to it.
Many studies involving control groups where people are told about the side effects of a particular drug resulted in them getting side effects whether they took the drug or a control.
These studies and many more posed some ethical questions in the medical community. “On the one hand people have the right to be informed about what to expect, but this makes it more likely they will experience side effects,” stated Mazzoni.
Reading about the nacebo effect resonates with me because I see it often in my profession. After personal training and teaching fitness/yoga for over a decade, I’ve observed many patterns of belief. Some people have the strong and unwavering belief that the body is adaptable and that it can heal and get stronger. Others let the fear of exercise lead them to believe that it will hurt them which keeps them from sticking to an effective regimen. Fear of illness or injury can be a self fulfilling prophecy. I’ve also seen people overcome great obstacles and perform skills that were once deemed impossible due to their belief in themselves.
To read my article on beliefs and learn examples on how empowering beliefs can help us accomplish what others deem impossible, you can click here:
I’m tackling this issue again because, at this point in my career, I have been using what I have learned about programming and changing people’s habits to help me change my own beliefs and habits. I’m realizing, it is my job to prop up the people who don’t believe in themselves and so their new belief in success will lead to just that.
Often, people have thanked me for being the only one who believed that they can change. It helps me to look back at my own life and remember the teachers, friends and family members who put me down or destroyed my drive by telling me that what I wanted to accomplish was impossible. Then I think of all the people who believed in me and how they changed my life.
I asked myself, who do I want to be? Do I want to be the teacher who once told one of my students that her belly fat was a part of age and that she couldn’t get rid of it? Yet, after taking my class for a month, the belly fat came right off. Do I want to be like the trainer who told me that a woman can’t do pull ups especially one who only has two fingers? Yet, I just did 30 pull ups unassisted the other day. Do I want to be like the physical therapist who told a few of my clients that it would take them months and months to heal? Yet, after a few weeks of training with me, they regained their range of motion in a much shorter amount of time.
The truth is there are doctors who won’t perform surgery on people because they can sense that the person’s belief in death will make him less likely to survive. There are teachers who have given up on trying because they think that the children just don’t care. There are trainers who turn down clients just because they feel they don’t have the right mind set. Many of us are taught to do this. But one day, I asked myself, “If I only train people who already have the mindset for it, what good am I? What about the people who really need it?”
There have been times when I have had to be honest with someone and tell them that they can change even if they didn’t believe it. I could tell that what I said hurt them greatly. Then, weeks or months later, they came to me and thanked me for changing their mindset and being the catalyst for them to find the path to health.
What touches me most is seeing new comers come to my class, struggling with the learning curve that often comes with starting up a new fitness regimen. Instead of complaining that they are taking up more space in the class or assuming that they are part of the wave of people who only come for the new year and leave after a month, I have seen my students tell them that they have gone through the same learning curves. I’ve seen my students offer support and encouragement to newcomers overcome with fear and apprehension.
This gives me hope that no one is hopeless. A society’s culture is simply a shared system of beliefs. We are fighting a war against obesity and chronic diseases, fueled by a fast food, inactive and stressful culture. Many of us have won the battle and have created new habits of health and well being. It is up to us to create a new culture, one that embraces positive change, healing and support.
So I ask you, do you want to be a voodoo witch doctor and curse people with your doubt? Or do you want to be the healer that motivates them with hope? What can we do to help change the beliefs of a generation?
For a more studies on how our subconscious fuels our beliefs and habits and how we can change that with awareness, click here:
For a list of my blogs in the category of motivation, click here: