A handful of those close to me know well my obstinance as it pertains to illness. I am continually firm in my conviction that I will not get sick. It’s not that I never get sick — because I occasionally do — but I get sick very rarely. And my secret? I am stubborn to the point of absurdity in the belief that I just will not get sick.
This belief is one that has generated ire in well-meaning friends who would rather me call my running nose “being sick” so that they may care for me appropriately. But it just isn’t for me. I’m not sick because I don’t get sick. Even I can see how this would be maddening.
And yet, there is some element of truth behind my veneer of optimism. You might call what I do a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. In medicine, a successful placebo is, at its core, one such prophecy. The absolute belief that receiving medicine will provide healing can sometimes heal even when the “medicine” itself is absent. The medicine, as it were, lies in our astounding ability to heal ourselves.
Each time you feel a cold coming on, diving for the Vitamin C and curling up on the couch, you are initiating the opposite of a placebo: a nocebo. Whereas a placebo inspires positive change, a nocebo does the opposite. In other words, by resigning to the inevitability of oncoming sickness, it’s possible that you are guaranteeing your future illness when there may have been no cause for alarm.
Take some examples from this article in The Seattle Times:
One example of the nocebo effect was extracted from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 to identify common factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease. It began with 2,873 women and 2,336 men. Women who believed they were prone to heart disease were nearly four times as likely to die as women with similar risk factors — high blood pressure, excessive weight, high cholesterol — who didn’t believe.
In an even more extreme example, a cancer patient died from their disease. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the patient didn’t have cancer after all. The doctor responsible for the diagnosis would later say:
He died with cancer, but not from cancer. … I thought he had cancer. He thought he had cancer. Everybody around him thought he had cancer. Did I remove hope in some way?
The next time you feel a cold coming, or a burning throat taunts you with the possibility of the flu — this being my current state and the inspiration for tonight’s writing — remember that your obstinance might be the best medicine there is.