The Placebo Effect, Don’t Fear the Placebo!

This article was originally written for the Summit Daily News and ran in the March 19, 2016 edition, it has been edited.

The placebo effect is generally defined as a treatment that has no known effect on a person’s health and well being, other than the fact the person believes it does. Usually, we think of a placebo as a sugar pill with no medical value whatsoever. It may as well be a Tic-Tac candy.

The placebo effect is a mirage. It refers to the fact that a person thinks they are taking a pill (substance, activity, or other) with some kind of medicinal value, when in reality it does not. For example, you have a headache and ask for an Advil. I give you a Tic-Tac, but you think still it is an Advil. There is a good chance that in about 30 minutes your headache will start to go away because you think you just took an Advil. It does not mean you are faking or lying but is more a testament to the power of our mind.

The placebo effect is extremely important to understand when conducting research. People taking placebos report a wide array of symptoms, including nausea, headaches, sleep problems, mood issues and basically any other side effect people believe pills have, even when the treatment is doing absolutely nothing chemically.


Believing is seeing, I suppose. If you believe a treatment will work then it just might, so why not believe your treatment is working?

As a counselor, people ask me for ways to improve their mental health that doesn’t require medications. I am always happy to see someone taking a natural approach to treating the issues of mental health. When you are open-minded to a possible “treatment” like yoga, exercise, fish oil, dogs, hiking, journaling, crafting, etc., it’s more likely they will work. Some people say that these and other activities are essentially placebos.

Think of it like this: I recommend you try yoga for your depression. You say, “Yoga? There is no way that can help my mental health!” A few things come to mind:

  1. You are so narrow-minded you may never be happy.
  2. Many studies have shown ties between yoga and mental health.
  3. Depression involves multiple biological factors which yoga can influence.
  4. If you aren’t willing to try something as accessible, affordable and holistically beneficial to your body as yoga, you are not willing to change.
  5. Who really cares if it’s a placebo? If you feel better, that is all that matters.

For the record, I personally think yoga is far more than a placebo. But, regardless of any factors listed above, and regardless of any biological impact a placebo might have, who cares? If you are depressed and doing puzzles helps you get out of your funk, who cares if it is just a placebo? If you feel better, do a puzzle, yoga, or whatever!


  1. Just because we don’t know it now, doesn’t mean it’s not true: Frequently, we do not know the actual biological causes of a reaction for years. For example, maybe puzzles have greatly improved your mood symptoms. Why? Maybe the brain (which we actually know very little about compared to the rest of the body) is engaged in a way that directly leads to the release of serotonin, and that makes you feel good. I am not saying there is or isn’t but rather that it is possible.
  2. 2. Many of the so-called placebos do in fact have some biological backing to them: Supposed mental health placebos like art, yoga, exercise and hobbies can all help for biological reasons. But you don’t see commercials for these activities on TV — just the ones trying to sell you a miracle pill that cures all your ailments. Guess who has deeper pockets for advertising: Big Pharma or the Yoga Alliance? Or maybe Puzzle Association of America? (OK, I made that last one up, or at least I think I did …)
  3. There are many scientific studies that have shown something as simple as a sugar pill can reduce symptoms for ailments as major as cancer: It can work. Your moods, anger, anxiety and other mental-health symptoms can improve too with activities and food that are far more than just sugar.
  4. To some people, it comical to think certain treatments are a placebo: My dogs are one of the best ways to help my mental health. It is ridiculous to me that someone would claim my dogs are placebos because the improvement is so tangible to me. Telling a yoga instructor, naturopath, or other expert that their field is merely a placebo is offensive and narrow-minded.
  5. Just because something hasn’t been scientifically proven, or may appear to be a placebo, does not mean you are crazy if it works: Don’t fight something that is of positive benefit to you. This reaction means that something is touching you in a good way, and that is awesome. Embrace and celebrate that.
  6. Some people consider sex a placebo: This is asinine. The amount of chemicals you release when having sex is substantial. There is reason that we enjoy sex beyond just the feeling. Also, for many, the intimacy that accompanies sex is very positive. Having sex with someone you value and love makes these benefits even more important, and encourages the release of oxytocin.
  7. Most placebos are about more than biology: Positive self view, socialization, hope, and enjoyment are all a part of feeling good and improving mental health.
  8. The power of prayer and hope is real. There are many studies that suggest that prayer and hope can help fight illness, disease, and other issues. Part of this is because when hoping and praying we release many chemicals like dopamine and endorphins which can help our overall health.

The biggest thing to remember if you have mental-health issues, whether you have been diagnosed or are just in a funk, is that you need to be willing to do anything to improve your symptoms — regardless of the scientific backing it may have. Being healthy and making good decisions is crucial.

It pays to be open-minded and try out many things to see what works best for you. If something positive and healthy is working, great! Keep doing it. If not, don’t give up — just keep looking. It may take a little while for you to find “your placebo” that may work.

And when you do, be proud of it. Do not be scared of a placebo. If it helps you feel better, it’s all good.