The belief that you can make change or perform a behavior has everything to do with whether or not you will actually do it. This belief also has a lot to do with whether or not a particular treatment will work. Simply believing a treatment will work makes up about 30% (or more) of the likelihood that it will. Alternately, believing that a treatment will have negative results (including side effects) strongly affects the likelihood of experiencing those side effects.
I’m currently reading a great book called The Whole Health Life: How You Can Learn to Get Healthy, Find Balance and Live Better in The Crazy-Busy Modern World by Shannon Harvey. Like us, she’s lived with autoimmune illnesses (often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed). She struggled to find a path to feeling better, taking the various medications that were handed to her only to have them make her feel worse, trying anything and everything sometimes with success, sometimes with disastrous results. Sound familiar? Yeah, it definitely does to me.
In her book, Shannon covers several topics related to health. In each one she looks at actual scientific studies that back up that particular topic. The third chapter is on the topic of belief. When I first started the chapter I actually thought she was going to talk about belief in a higher power, prayer, etc. But, that was not the direction she went. Instead, she looked at the placebo effect and how very often something as simple as our belief that what we are taking will help our illness makes a very big difference in how well it helps. There have been many cases where patients who are taking part in a study are told they are receiving a medication when in fact they are receiving a placebo, yet they still see improvement just because they believed they were getting a medication.
As much as I hated to read this I know it’s true. Often times it’s our anxiety over the pain or symptom that makes it worse. Simple taking something that calms the anxiety (either an actual medication that calms it or just believing that help is on the way) can reduce the stress and allow the body to relax and the symptom to lessen.
It’s common sense that the mindset we take with us when we face the challenges of everyday life can have an effect on the choices we make and the behaviours we adopt.39 But this new research demonstrates that what we think and believe can also influence physiological outcomes that affect our health.” – Shannon Harvey, The Whole Health Life
I think back a few years to when a medication gave me severe high blood pressure. Simply knowing that my blood pressure was high and not knowing what was going on left me anxious and afraid which increased my blood pressure all the more. A few months back we had a similar situation with my mom. She’d been struggling with side effects from chemo more on that round than any other. As she sat in the chair where I’m sitting now she felt short of breath. As she felt short of breath she got anxious and worried that there was a bigger problem and her blood pressure skyrocketed. I called her Dr and they had me take her to the ER. Of course, they did tons of tests and even admitted her but in the end they attributed it all to anxiety brought on by the stress of chemo and everything else that she was dealing with.
There is a direct connection between the body and the mind. While we can’t control every symptom and no our illnesses won’t suddenly be cured by a placebo, we do have control over quite a bit and over how bad we perceive our symptoms to be. For instance, I’ve learned that it’s best for me to not journal my symptoms because it forces me to focus on them. Focusing on my symptoms makes me feel them more, and therefore increases how bad I perceive them to be. By not focusing on things like pain or fatigue I can push those symptoms to the background of my mind and they don’t seem so bad. I’m able to focus on other things instead.
So, do you believe you can feel better? Do you believe that small changes matter? Do you believe that prayer makes a difference? Whatever you believe is what becomes reality for you. If you believe you have no control (no self-efficacy) over your illness then you have none. Nothing you will do will make a difference because you believe that help has to come from an external force. Improving your illness starts with you, it starts with what you believe. Believe that you can affect your outcomes.