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The Placebo and Nocebo effect - what is it and why it works!

Placebo and nocebo are fascinating concepts that truly illuminate the world of psychology and medicine with their unique impact on our well-being. Let's look at these concepts a bit deeper to understand some of the pros and cons.


In recent decades, research on placebo and nocebo has made significant strides, largely thanks to advanced techniques for brain imaging. These studies have shown that the areas of the brain activated by placebo and nocebo effects are the same as those affected by many drugs. This suggests that these effects are not merely imaginary, but have a real, physical impact on the brain. These discoveries have opened up new ways of thinking about how psychological factors and expectations can influence medical treatment and the health condition of the patient.


Hur hypnos kan använda placebo för att förbättra hälsa
Placebo and Nocebo - what is it and why does it work?


The Placebo effect


Placebo: Imagine taking a pill, believing it to be a powerful medicine, and you actually start feeling better, even though the pill is just a simple sugar pill. This is the essence of the placebo effect. It's like a magical power in our belief and expectations. When we believe that something will help us, our body and mind can respond positively and manifest it. This demonstrates the incredibly strong connection between our mind and body.


  1. Medical Studies: Placebo is usually used in clinical trials to test the effectiveness of new drugs. In these studies, one group of patients receives the actual medicine, while another group gets a placebo, often a sugar pill with no active ingredient. Despite this, many patients in the placebo group report an improvement in their condition, illustrating the strength of the placebo effect.

  2. Pain Relief: A classic example is when patients report pain relief after taking a placebo. In some cases, studies have shown that patients who received a placebo experience, a reduction in pain, it can be as effective as real painkillers. This is because their expectation of pain relief activates the body's own pain-relief mechanisms.

  3. Surgical Procedures: There have even been cases where patients have undergone placebo surgery, believing they have had an operation, when in fact the surgeon has not performed any actual procedure. Yet, these patients report an improvement in their condition, demonstrating the powerful impact of belief and expectations on the effectiveness of treatment. Example: A study demonstrating the placebo effect involved patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. The patients were divided into groups, with some undergoing actual surgery, while others received a placebo surgery where only skin incisions and stitches were made, with no further intervention. The results showed that the patients in the placebo group reported similar improvements in pain relief and function as those who underwent real surgery. (After 2 years the followup showed that the placebo patients were convinced they had the surgery as they were feeling well again.) These outcomes suggest that the patients' expectations and belief in the treatment had a significant impact. This study has been supported by further research indicating that arthroscopic debridement offers no advantage over placebo surgeries.

  4. Treatment of Depression: In the treatment of depression, several studies have shown that placebo can have a significant effect. Patients who receive a placebo instead of antidepressant medications often report an improvement in their symptoms. This phenomenon has led to discussions about the importance of psychological and emotional factors in the treatment of depression.

  5. Sports Performance: In the world of sports, the placebo effect has been observed when athletes are given a harmless, non-performance-enhancing substance, yet still show improved performance. They believe they have received a performance-enhancing treatment, which boosts their confidence and performance.

This demonstrates how powerful our expectations and beliefs can be on our physical and mental health. The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon that continues to be explored and understood within medical research.



The Nocebo effect


Nocebo: On the other hand, there is the nocebo effect, which is somewhat like the dark side of the placebo effect. It involves negative expectations. If you believe that a treatment will make you sick, your body may react accordingly, even if the treatment itself is completely harmless. It's like telling the body that something bad is going to happen, and the body listens and obeys.


  1. Side-effects in Medical Studies: In clinical trials where patients are informed about possible side effects of a medication, often those in the placebo group (who do not receive any active medicine) also report experiencing these side effects. This is a clear example of the nocebo effect, where the patient's expectations and concerns about potential side effects lead to a real physical reaction.

  2. Pain Experience: Just as placebo can alleviate pain, nocebo can exacerbate it. If a person expects to feel pain or believes a treatment will be painful, this expectation alone can lead to the person experiencing increased pain.

  3. Psychological Stress and Anxiety: The nocebo effect can also trigger or exacerbate psychological stress and anxiety. For example, if someone believes that an event or situation will be stressful or anxiety-inducing, it can heighten their experience of these feelings.

  4. Worsening of Symptoms: Patients who are convinced that their health condition will worsen can actually experience a deterioration in their symptoms. This expectation can be particularly strong if they have been negatively impacted by previous treatments or if they have heard negative stories from other patients or friends and family.

  5. Effect on Treatment Outcomes: The nocebo effect can negatively influence the outcome of a treatment. If a patient believes that a treatment will not work, this can decrease the effectiveness of the treatment or even lead to the patient discontinuing the treatment altogether.


This shows how powerfully our mind, thoughts and feelings can affect our body. Just like with the placebo effect, the nocebo effect provides insight into how our expectations, beliefs, and fears can have a direct impact on our physical and mental health. Therefore, it's important to be aware of the nocebo effect and its potential impact on patients' well-being, especially in healthcare, but also in education and other areas.



Hypnotherapy and Placebo - how does it work?


How can this be utilised in hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy is like a journey into your subconscious, where a therapist helps you navigate and influence your thoughts and emotions positively per request. By leading you into a state of deep relaxation and increased receptivity to suggestions, the therapist can plant seeds of positive expectations in your mind.


Imagine that during a hypnosis session, you are told that you will feel less stressed and more relaxed each day. This positive expectation can activate your internal placebo effect, helping you to actually experience these positive changes.


On the other hand, the therapist also works on alleviating and transforming any negative beliefs you may have for example that you don't deserve to be well, or if you only use the negative effects of nocebo.

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