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The Power of Negative Thinking
Fighting the Nocebo Effect

Don't let negativity influence your feelings.
Are you letting negativity
influence your feelings?

You're probably familiar with the power of positive thinking. Think good thoughts and good things will happen to you. It's been proven in dozens of research trials and promoted by popular writers for decades. But what you may not know is that negative thoughts, self-doubt and worry can actually cause you harm. It's called the "nocebo effect" and this is how it works.

Let's start with a typical clinical trial. You split the subjects up into two groups. One gets the real thing while the other gets a fake treatment, often called a placebo. You can tell if the treatment is beneficial if the people getting the real treatment do better than the ones getting a placebo. You can't just give everyone the real thing, because there are a small percentage of people who will report positive results, no matter what. The word placebo in Latin literally means, "I shall please."

But now researchers have started to uncover the opposite effect. There are some people, who when they're told of potential side effects, will actually start to experience the side effects, even when they're taking a placebo. In other words, they think the treatment is going to cause harm, and in fact it does, even when the treatment is fake.

It was brought into sharp focus in a recent study conducted at Kings College London. Volunteers were given psychological exams and then split into two groups. One group watched a BBC program about the dangers of Wi-Fi networking, while the other group saw a film on mobile-phone security.

The volunteers were then brought into a small room and had a headband put on with a silver antenna sticking out of it. The antenna was called a "Wi-Fi amplifier." Then the subjects pushed a button that made a red Wi-Fi symbol flash on the computer screen. It lasted for 15 minutes, during which the volunteers were asked to report on how they felt.


In reality, there was no Wi-Fi signal being beamed out. The antenna wasn't connected to anything and wasn't amplifying anything. But some of the subjects reported tingling hands and feet, stomachaches and difficulty concentrating. Two found the experiment so unpleasant they had to stop before the full 15 minutes had passed. The group that watched the program about the dangers of Wi-Fi networking were the only ones that had adverse reactions. They believed they would experience negative effects based on what they were told, so they did.

They were experiencing the "nocebo" or "I shall harm" effect. The subjects were literally victims of their own minds. It can start with a simple suggestion.

When I was at dinner with some friends, everyone ordered ice tea. I mentioned that the tea I was drinking had a "strange" taste. I said I thought something was wrong with it, then I waited to see their reactions. One by one, each person tasted their tea. Four of the five people said they agreed with me, their tea tasted bad. They all wanted a fresh glass.

In reality, there was nothing wrong with the tea. It tasted exactly the same as it had a few weeks before when I had eaten there. My suggestion that they would experience something bad, was made real in the minds of those four friends.

Over time, you can trap yourself in cycles of negative reinforcement. You believe you will feel bad, then you do, which then reinforces your belief and it repeats. Those negative thoughts can have just as much power over your life as the positive ones.

So how do you deal with those negative feelings? Step one is being aware of them. If you acknowledge your feelings, you're more able to shut them down.

Step two, say something positive out loud. Quit thinking to yourself, "healthy food is bland." Instead say, "I'm looking forward to how much energy I get when I eat fresh vegetables." Speaking gives the statement more power and can help you believe. Don't let the nocebo effect hold you back.

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