Recently 2 minor medical complaints got me thinking again about how we actively seek out others to reassure us and this reassurance (false or not) has a massive impact on us.
The first one was a growing pain in one of my teeth; after several weeks I booked a dentist appointment. On the day of the appointment I noticed that the pain was substantially less and after the visit, in which he reassured me after an Xray that nothing sinister was going on, the pain was less and now a few weeks later completely gone. It’s as if my anxiety made the pain worse and there’s evidence to show our state of mind does have an impact on our physical body’s experiences.
I recognise similar processes when I go to the doctor. After a headache which lasted on and off for more than 3 weeks I (with fears of brain cancer as we all do after using Google as our medical encyclopaedia 😊) made an appointment and this time I thought let’s see what happens?…and lo and behold 2 days after my visit and anything major being ruled out, my headaches are much less.
Do you experience this too? If so, it’s easy to be harsh on yourself and say you’re a hypochondriac, but actually it’s a very common experience. We know the placebo effect from medication, that people given pills that have nothing but sugar in them (but believe they are taking a cure) get better, but it’s interesting to see this effect can also happen in relationships. You can actually read more about it here in this study if you’re interested.
But what if you have a complex or deteriorating condition where the ‘experts’ are as unsure as you about it all? As humans we have an urge for control, stability, knowing and safety. Underneath this desire to trust medical professionals is also a desire for them to take responsibility for our health, partly so we’ve got somewhere to put our frustration if it goes wrong. It’s scary not knowing, not having control, we start escalating in our thoughts about what will happen…I couldn’t sleep thinking about my worst-case scenarios and afterwards felt silly having made a fuss.
Talking to the expert, if they are sure of themselves, alleviates some of our anxieties. If they get it wrong, we can blame them. But at the same time putting the responsibility on the expert removes our opportunity to learn how to be more ok with making unknown decisions and being responsible for ourselves.
Why is it so hard to make our own decisions? Perhaps as we grow up, we get messages left right and centre that mistakes are our fault or that our decisions can’t be trusted? Do praise and sticker charts for good behaviour and punishment for bad behaviour encourage fear of failure instead of a discussion which encourages our own decision-making skills? Is it the ‘Nanny State’? The media who like to lavish full attention on failures/blame games? All of the above?
Perhaps if we are more kind to ourselves about mistakes and failures and choices we didn’t know the outcome of until later, we’d be more able to have trust in ourselves and our decisions and less reliant on ‘experts’ to alleviate our anxieties and make the decisions for us…because as many of us know they often are making an educated guess too (I mentioned on our Facebook page this week Henry Marsh’s book Do No Harm about a brain surgeon, which beautifully demonstrates how doctors often don’t know either what is the best course of action or in our current climate don’t have the time or money to provide the support we might need). He write for example that because we HAVE to trust in the doctore (as our life depends on it), we invest in them something like superhuman powers: if they can ‘fix’ us they are the hero, if they can’t, or they make a mistake or it just doesn’t go to plan, they are the villain. Interestingly, this is often how disabled people are seen, not as normal human beings, but as heros or villains too.
In therapy I’ve often discussed with people the angst and anger around having to be one’s own Doctor in today’s climate, or fighting one’s own case when we don’t know ourselves.
There’s something reassuring about someone who we see as an ‘expert’ telling us were ok or if we’re not ok what the action plan is to return to wellness. Indeed, even in therapy people often say they feel somewhat more well once they have had their first few sessions, and sometimes even before they have talked to us but just booked their first appointment.
What I have gained from these 2 minor experiences is that we all need other people around us to give us comfort, help us feel less alone in this big wide world and to feel they care and have our wellbeing at heart. This need to so important that the words of even the presence of the right person can heal or improve whatever is ailing us…sometimes that might be a doctor or professional who just may know more about our condition. But other times that person might be standing right next to you, a friend or partner or family member.
To me that’s amazing and one of the wonders of life: that something so seemingly simple, just being with the right people, can have such a profound effect on us and actually reduce our physical pain or fatigue. I encourage all of you to ensure you have the right people in your inner circle. Like those with sexual diversity, disability often means you are surrounded by people who do not share your experiences and this can be isolating, silencing and invalidating. We’re here to assist if you are struggling with increasing the people in your life who make you feel good about yourself and there are many online groups who do also. Look after yourself and thank you for taking the time to read this.
What are your experiences with the placebo effect through medication or in relationships with those around you of medical professionals? Have you noticed physical changes in your body when you’ve made the right connection?