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Anxiety Placebo Treatments

Desperation is extremely common for those that suffer from anxiety. They want to find immediate relief, so they seek out anything they can that promises to treat their anxiety, hoping that they can come across that magic formula that will allow them to become anxiety free.

Unfortunately, the majority of people that seek out help end up falling victim to anxiety placebo treatments - treatments that research proves are ineffective, where sellers are hoping your desperation helps them make money.

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How Placebo Treatments Work

The concept of a placebo is extremely difficult for most people to understand. Placebos affect nearly everything we do - not just medicine - and the effects they have are often real, not imagined. Make sure you've taken my free 7-minute anxiety test so that the idea of a placebo makes more sense to you.

Placebo is a term used to describe the effect of a "treatment" that shouldn't actually have an effect. In medicine, an example might be giving someone a sugar pill (basically a candy) and telling them it's a medicine, and seeing what they report in terms of:

  • The symptoms of the disease being treated.
  • The side effects of the "medication."
  • The progression of the disease/illness.

Placebos work using the power of the mind. If the person knew it was a sugar pill, a placebo would do nothing. But because they think it's a medicine, their mind responds to it as a medicine, and this can cause both real and imagined changes in the body.

What's fascinating is that these changes actually can be real. There have been placebos in the past that have cured cancer, reduced pain, and of course, stopped anxiety. Even though the placebo technically has no effect on the body, it still created actual changes thanks to the power of the mind over the body.

How the Mind Affects Healing

The brain really does have surprising control over many of the mechanisms of the body. Of course, placebos rarely cure cancer or stop disease - those are extreme cases that go against all medical wisdom - but anything that the mind can more easily control, like pain, pleasure, emotions, alertness, etc. - all of those can be affected by placebo very easily.

How The Placebo Effect is "Created"

Placebo is affected by marketing, by subconscious beliefs, by desperation, and more. Because placebo is so complex, it's used as the "control" in most medical experiments to see how effective a medication is. A study will be conducted in a major research lab that will look at something like the effectiveness of an anxiety medication on anxiety. That medication will then be compared to a placebo, which in this case is an identical pill in shape, size, and color that happens to have no medicine in it. But the patients believe it has medicine.

Participants of this study will then be measured. They will list things like side effects, how they're feeling, whether they have anxiety, how severe that anxiety is, and more.

In almost all cases, both those with placebo and those with the actual medications will report a reduction in their symptoms, some side effects like headache and nausea, etc. So then the researchers will compare the placebo against the actual medicine and see if the differences are strong enough to believe that the medicine actually works.

To repeat: a pill that does nothing and a medication that works both will reduce anxiety, cause side effects like headache and nausea, and change how someone feels or acts because the brain has incredible control over how you feel. The question researchers are testing is whether the medication shows better results than the placebo.

Anyone Can Fall Victim to the Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is rampant in today's culture. In fact, studies have shown that over 70% of those that seek treatment for anxiety and other conditions are using placebo based treatments. Nearly all herbal medicine, alternative therapies, and spiritual based medicinal treatments are known without a shadow of a doubt to be the placebo effect. Few of these alternative therapies work, if any. Yet these alternative treatments are arguably used more today than empirically validated (well researched) treatments.

Even skeptics can fall victim to the placebo effect because placebo isn't necessarily a conscious thought. While your mind may think to yourself "this isn't going to work, this is a placebo," your subconscious may be looking for evidence that it's effective. No one can claim they will not fall victim to placebo, because the reason it works isn't based on how much skepticism you have.

Certainly, those that truly "believe" something will work are likely more prone to placebo, but skepticism alone is not enough to prevent placebo from affecting you.

Reverse Placebo is Also Possible

In fact, one of the things that makes the placebo effect so interesting is that the reverse can also be true. A person's subconscious can believe so thoroughly that a treatment will not work that it doesn't work, even if medically it should work fine.

In addition, don't forget that many side effects of medications are the result of the placebo effect as well. Headaches are one of the most common medication side effects, but studies have shown that placebo (a "medication" that has no effect on the body so it could not cause headaches) seems to also cause headaches in a large percentage of the population.

It's not clear how this occurs, but placebo can cause any number of changes to your body.

Placebo Can Be Enhanced Through Marketing or Action

Strong marketing tactics, word of mouth, and more can all increase the likelihood the placebo effect occurs.

In fact, sometimes even the way the placebo is delivered can also increase placebo.

For example, many people go on "juice cleanses" to rid their body of "toxins." There is zero medical support for toxins in the body, or that drinking only juice would help cure them. All of those are based on marketing tactics that make people believe that toxins and "cleanses" work."

Yet a large number of people that go on juice cleanses claim they feel so much better when it's over. Why? Most likely because in addition to marketing, the body also gets very sick on juice cleanses because you're starving your body of important nutrients and calories.

So when you finally start eating again and the juice cleanse is over, your body releases "good feeling" neurotransmitters as a response, because it's satisfied that the juice cleanse is over. The cleanse itself did nothing, but hurting your body only to help it later seems to make it seem like they worked, the same way some people feel amazing after they finally get over a cold or flu.

This is why scientists believe that many people experience results from things like acupuncture. Research shows that acupuncture works better than a sugar pill placebo, which has caused people to believe it really works.

But when compared traditional acupuncture to "sham acupuncture" where the researchers stick random needles anywhere they want (rather than in the specific areas that acupuncture uses), the results are exactly the same. That's because the needles and pain make people feel like something is happening, which then increases the placebo effect.

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What's Wrong With the Placebo Effect?

So the placebo effect is rampant in today's culture and plays a role in not only medicine, but also therapies, treatment tips, dietary changes, and more. Many people that experience relief from anxiety symptoms because of placebo, not because the anxiety recovery formula actually works.

This brings up an interesting question, however: If placebo seems to work, what's wrong with using it? The reality is that nothing is really wrong with the placebo effect. If you're cured of your anxiety because of placebo, then that's great! But the reasons that placebo is generally best avoided are because:

  • Placebo effects tend not to last. Since you're not really using an actual treatment, there is a high likelihood that over time the effects will fade away faster than a real treatment would, and this may cause you to fall back into your old habits and your old anxiety.
  • Placebo treatments can be harmful. Not all herbs are safe just because they're natural. Using some type of placebo treatment for an extended period of time may actually do harm to your body, depending on how well known the treatment is.
  • Placebo treatments don't work for everyone, but many believe they should work. Marketing and word of mouth support can make people turn to placebo treatments that don't work. Then after they don't work, it may increase the likelihood that the person gives up on future anxiety treatments, or has allowed their anxiety to get worse over time.

So while curing your own anxiety is of course very beneficial, and it doesn't necessarily matter that you use a placebo treatment, there are long term implications of both using and supporting these treatments that can be very problematic.

Should Alternative Treatments Be Avoided?

The vast majority of alternative therapies and medicines rely on placebo effects to work. Studies have consistently shown them to have no effect, and yet millions upon millions of anxiety sufferers use them because they want to avoid medicine and therapy.

The reality though is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with trying an alternative treatment provided you go into it with the right mindset. You need to make sure you understand:

  • If it doesn't work, you can still cure your anxiety with a different treatment.
  • If it does work, keep in mind that your anxiety could come back.
  • If it does work, be careful about recommending it to others.

Remember that even many of the people that provide alternative therapies believe it will work. Assuming acupuncture is a placebo, for example, most acupuncturists are not scammers. They truly believe that acupuncture works, despite science seeming to disagree.

So the key is to simply be careful and be aware that placebos are out there, and affect many of the people that use alternative therapies. No matter how much someone "swears by" something, if it's not well researched in controlled settings, chances are it's just another placebo.

How to Avoid the Placebo Effect

Unfortunately, the placebo effect is not something you can avoid. Instead, you should simply be careful about everything you choose to use for your anxiety. Doubt everything, be a skeptic, and do research. Don't be afraid to ask questions and use logic. If something doesn't make sense or it's never been tried before or everything you read about it is on sketchy websites or websites that may promote other placebo products, strongly consider it before you decide to use it.

Remember, there's really no harm in most products that are actually placebos, and in some cases, your enjoyment of the experience may be enough to get a benefit from it. People find help from anxiety in strange ways. Just make sure of two things:

  • That you don't give up on treating your anxiety if it doesn't work.
  • That you be careful about who you recommend it to, as they may be desperate.

Desperation can cause people to depend on things that they shouldn't depend on, and it's something that you need to strongly consider before you decide both what treatments to try and whether you are "okay" with some treatment being a placebo.

In the meantime, make sure you learn as much about your anxiety as possible to make smart decisions about your treatments. Start my anxiety test now to find out more.

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Pilkington, Karen, et al. Acupuncture for anxiety and anxiety disorders-a systematic literature review. Acupuncture in Medicine 25.1-2 (2007): 1-10.

Bonne, Omer, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of classical homeopathy in generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 64.3 (2003): 282-287.

Jorm, Anthony F., et al. Effectiveness of complementary and self-help treatments for anxiety disorders. Medical Journal of Australia 181.7 (2004): S29.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Apr 13, 2018.

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