“All of the research around the placebo effect substantiates the notion that our medical outcomes in allopathic medicine ride the placebo effect more consistently than they do a validated mechanism. So our belief in what we are doing is more relevant than actually what we are doing.” – Dr. Kelly Brogan*
I recently read an interview with Dr. Kelly Brogan, a holistic women’s health psychiatrist, and this quote stuck out at me. She is talking about psychiatric medication, but the concept of the “placebo effect” crosses over into many aspects of healing. The placebo effect is not just about positive thinking; it’s about strengthening the mind-body connection through complex neurobiological reactions. It’s a way for the brain to tell the body what it needs to feel better. One of the reasons why placebos may work is that we are performing a ritual that is designed for healing. In other words, by taking a pill or agreeing to undergo some sort of treatment, we are actively taking the first step in the process of addressing an issue we may have, regardless of whether the treatment is a “real” treatment or not. The intention is to get better. This intention is a big part of the healing process even when the treatment IS real and not placebo – it’s about showing up. The intention sets it all in motion.
Taking full advantage of this critical “first step” through our intention can greatly increase the therapeutic benefit when we decide to seek treatment. In massage, making the decision that self-care is important and showing up consistently for appointments is powerful. As Brogan notes, this very act puts us back in control over our own destiny rather than leaving us dependent victims of our bodily experiences. My clients are investing in their health every time they come for a massage – and because of this the healing starts to happen before they even get on the table. Often it carries over into the time in between appointments, as most clients report an increase in body awareness, an increased desire for healthy movement and the impetus to take better care of their bodies. Two simple ways of getting into the mindset are allowing ourselves to fully receive touch and acknowledging our role in the process by allowing our inner wisdom to take over.
Many of us have a difficult time allowing ourselves to simply receive. Women, and mothers in particular, are so accustomed to being in the nurturing role that transitioning into “me time” can be a challenge. I consider myself a giver, so I can relate to this on a personal level. However, when I allow myself to fully receive during massage, I can retreat inside of myself and connect deeply with what is happening in my body. I can feel which parts of my body have been calling out for attention and which parts could benefit from more mobility. I can suddenly recognize where I am holding tension, which allows me to let go of the tension with the help of my therapist. Fully receiving for me means not being worried that I am being judged by the therapist, but also not judging myself. I often need to remind my clients that my massage room is a judgement-free zone. I am genuinely not concerned in the slightest if feet are dirty or legs are unshaven. Bodies stink sometimes and they grow hair, but this has no bearing on their worthiness to receive healing touch. Please read my previous post on body image and massage for more thoughts on how to get into the judgement-free mindset.
The other piece to showing up is inviting our inner healer to awaken. In my practice I have created a safe space for women to quiet the noise in their heads and instead start to tune in to the body’s inner communication. In that magical “massage brain” zone, the mind-body connection that started with merely showing up can get fired up in earnest, which brings a renewed self-knowing. Most of the time my role as therapist is that of a gentle but active guide. However, there are times when my hands are still exploring the tissues, trying to hone in on where the body wants me to go, when the client says she is experiencing a shift. In those moments, I am not deliberately “doing” anything. Sometimes all that my client’s inner healer requires is touch with full presence and a safe space.
How placebos work is still not quite understood, but the placebo effect involves everything from increases in feel-good neurotransmitters, like endorphins and dopamine, to greater activity in certain brain regions linked to moods, emotional reactions, and self-awareness. Scientists believe that one of the mechanisms by which the placebo effect is triggered is through the rituals performed around healing. Understanding this mechanism and harnessing it can help us on the path to true healing.
*in a perfect world I would edit the last statement in her quote to say “as relevant as”