While we know from decades worth of psychological and medical research that the mind can consciously play tricks on itself, the mind is just as capable of playing tricks on the body. Nevertheless, these “tricks” aren’t always inherently harmful. In fact, the placebo effect can contribute significantly to one’s mental clarity and stamina for tasks both big and small. But where does one draw the line between benefit and harm? Let us guide you through all things placebo.
“Mind over matter” is a phrase most of us are used to hearing. We probably first heard this “dad advice” as children, encouraging us to finish strong in the track meet, push through hours of reading, study to earn that A and more. Venturing into adulthood, many students can attest to the fact that this concept has been ingrained into our heads since we sat at the kitchen table, doing times tables and crying. But can the mind truly overpower the body? Can we really do anything we set our minds to?
For a long time, the idea of the placebo effect was thought of by health professionals and researchers as a myth. In simple terms, the placebo effect is when a person’s physical or mental health appears to improve after undergoing a placebo or “dummy” treatment.
Common examples of this are sugar pills, inert injections and even some allegedly therapeutic tactics. It is easy to believe that if the “treatment” realistically shouldn’t do anything, no perception of results will come from it. However, that might not be the case. Studies done around the world, most notably by Harvard Medical School, show that this phenomenon may have the same healing powers as traditional medicine, in which the brain can convince the body that a placebo treatment is authentic.
The placebo effect involves a reaction in the brain that triggers the release of chemical substances, such as endorphins and dopamine. This can then affect regions of the brain that are related to mood, behavior and self-awareness which can yield therapeutic benefits.
However, for placebo to work on a biological level, one must wholeheartedly believe that a certain treatment will yield certain results. It is about creating a stronger bond between the brain and body.
According to Dr. Rick Buck M.D., “[The] effectiveness of the placebo depends on that person’s susceptibility to believe a placebo would work.”
The placebo effect doesn’t only pertain to medicine. For instance, athletes may perform better after drinking some Gatorade, or students may feel more centered and focused when carrying around a crystal in their pocket. Some adults even believe that expensive wine may get you drunker than cheap ones.
You might be able to fake it until you make it when you’re just slightly under the weather. But when it comes to a physical condition that cannot be ignored, such as exhaustion or being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, how much can the mind really do?
University of Miami sophomore, Will Charlop, said he recently used his version of the placebo effect to combat his exhaustion, and frequently does so when staying up late completing assignments.
“The way I talked to myself about how tired I was made a big difference. Even if it was 1 or 2 a.m., [which is] not that late, if I told myself that I was too exhausted, I couldn’t do it,” said Charlop. “It was 3 a.m., and I ended up not being that tired because I told myself I could do more work. Even though it was later, I felt more awake.”
But can placebos and mind games save one from emotional distress? A student who wishes to remain anonymous detailed a recent experience they had while high on edibles.
“Walking down the corridor of my apartment complex, I suddenly felt very claustrophobic, as if the corridor stretched on forever,” they said. “I was starting to panic. However, I managed to get it under control by reminding myself that I would get to the elevator shortly. — that it wouldn’t last forever. Each step of the journey, I felt time was moving super slowly, and I had to constantly tell myself I wasn’t high.”
According to the student, telling themself they weren’t high didn’t exactly work. You can’t become un-drunk or un-high through positive affirmations. However, you may be able to shut off the warning alarms going off in your head.
Buck agreed and mentioned there is no way to fully combat the effects of a substance or a feeling such as being uncomfortably full after eating a hefty Thanksgiving dinner, but there are ways to escape “panic mode.”
“There have also been instances where I’ve taken magnesium before bed, and I’ve noticed that I immediately feel sleepier,” Charlop said. He recognizes that, in reality, he shouldn’t feel that way so soon, as the medication wouldn’t have been given enough time to absorb into his bloodstream and produce the calming effect.
On the flip side, while going for the placebo might bring some benefits, it is not the healthiest habit. If you are seriously hurting, trying to bite down and trying to stomach the pain is fine for a brief moment, though you shouldn’t let it go unchecked for long. College students love to procrastinate, but when it comes to your well-being, don’t let it get lost with all of your other forgotten assignments.
words_veronika valia. photo_valeria barbaglio. design_laurie vuong.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2023 print issue.
Follow our Social Media: