Harnessing The Power Of The Placebo Effect

What is it in us that makes it possible for us to heal based on our faith that healing will happen? We’re not just talking about religious belief, but more generally, faith in a positive outcome. It can be faith in medicine, as is the case with the placebo effect.

A ‘placebo’ is used during clinical trials as a benchmark to evaluate a promising treatment. Comparing the actual remedy to the placebo (an innocuous pill) allows the researcher to separate the new treatment’s real impact from ‘expectancy’— the healing power of people’s faith in medical science’s healing power.

The placebo is not a real treatment

People are conned into believing that it is. There is a paradox here. The ineffectiveness of the placebo itself shows how powerful the ‘placebo effect’ is. If the sham treatment by itself has no inherent healing power, then the healing must have to do with something like hope or belief. In other words: What makes the innocuous pill useful is that we have a natural ability to heal — the power of expectancy. And this innate ability to heal is magnified by the trust we have that the pill is an effective treatment.

So it makes sense for the healing professions to tap into the power of hope, belief, and trust to enhance people’s natural ability to heal.

Does this mean that, as psychotherapists, we should seriously consider conning people into positive beliefs?

Such an approach would be self-defeating in the long run. How could we establish a relationship of trust if our work was based on keeping clients ignorant of the underlying con game that is undertaken ‘for their own good’?

Unlike what happens in clinical trials, we must avoid fostering false hopes or false beliefs. This task may seem daunting: How can a client with a negative outlook on life find an authentic sense of hope even before resolving their issues?

Somatic approaches to psychotherapy allow us to bypass this. We do not just rely on the ‘story’ that people tell. We pay attention to the whole person, including what happens somatically.

We focus on inner experience (as opposed to just thoughts and beliefs)

This focus allows the client to get a felt sense of a ‘something’ that keeps them going, even if this ‘something’ is hard to express verbally.

We acknowledge that this ‘something’ may be very faint at the time. An obstacle to noticing it may be the expectation that hope and faith in the future are ‘loud’ experiences. They may be so faint as to be almost totally drowned by the loudness of the default ‘story,’ the negative thoughts and beliefs, and the intensity of nervous system activation.

So, we are not trying to instill in our clients. As we pay attention to embodied experience, we help them find in themselves the visceral experience of having a sense of possibility. However faint it is, this felt sense of ‘something that keeps me going’ is an experience. As such, it can be felt as a grounding, an anchor, more effective in containing nervous system activation than abstract thoughts could ever be. And this personal experience has the potential to grow as we pay attention to it.

All of this happens in a context

One of the fundamental principles of somatic psychotherapies is tracking. During a session, we are not just ‘objectively’ tracking what is happening to the client to treat them. We are following the client within the context of an intersubjective relationship, where we track ourselves. So we have a sense of the level of trust present in the space, moment by moment. This sensing is not an objective measurement, but part of an ongoing process of making working hypotheses and testing them.

In other words: We are working experientially, moment by moment, with trust, hope, and belief. And, in so doing, we are working with the innate human ability to heal.