What is the Placebo Effect and how does it affect mental health?

You’ve probably heard of the placebo effect; in short, it is when something works for us because we “think” it will work, even though there is nothing actually effective about it. For example, a sugar pill may work for someone as well as medication simply because they believe it’s medication.

What you may not know is how real the placebo effect is. It is so powerful, many studies for new medications have to have a placebo control group; this means that a group needs to be given a placebo (unknowingly) to compare results with the medication group. This is because people in the medication group will usually improve just because they know they are on medication, so if they improve, it’s difficult to tell if it’s because the medication is effective or if it’s because they believe the medication is effective (if they improve more than the placebo group improves, it’s likely that the medication is effective). 

Why does this matter in mental health? Two reasons:

1.) Sometimes, we can harness this amazing ability to self-heal. If we try new coping skills, treatments, or even hobbies or new interests with a strong belief that this will improve our mind state, it can activate the placebo effect. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it very often can be. 

2.) If the placebo effect is this strong, it stands to reason that there is an equally strong reverse-placebo effect. That is, if we strongly believe something won’t work, there’s a good chance we will block the effectiveness of a treatment. 

Important caveat: this is not meant to put the responsibility on you to “heal thyself” or to make up for the failings of those who are providing you ineffective help! It is merely a way to see how important it is to approach new things with an open, positive mindset and let the brain do its thing. Sometimes your brain will fall in love with something and it will work like a charm. Sometimes it will reject something that everyone else seems to love. This is all okay – it’s what makes us so beautifully unique. 

If you need professional help navigating your mental health, come see us at our clinics in Cary, Apex, or Fuquay-Varina!

CarrieAnn Lefsaker

Mental Health Student Intern