Words can kill you

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Want to see the power of your unconscious in action? There’s a TED Talk that you should watch. It’s a subtle point, buried by the main message. But the lesson – if you hear it – describes how to take away a lot of pain. Not every pain for every person. A lot of emotional and physical pain, though.

The TED Talk is Tiffany Watt Smith: The history of human emotions. You may have seen it. If you have, did you catch the part where she says your own thoughts can kill you?

Not to be alarmist or anything…

Her example is the origins of ‘nostalgia’. Today, it’s a quaint longing for the past. In the 17th century, it was a disease. Wanting to return home was an emotion so powerful that it brought on fainting spells, stomach issues and… death.

Death? No one dies these days from nostalgia. It’s not even necessarily a negative emotion. So, what? Are we stronger these days? How could an emotion kill people then but not now?

Probably because they were expecting it.

Nocebos, Unconscious Thinking and Medical Curses

Imagine you’re a Swiss soldier from a few centuries ago. You’re deployed to the lowlands but you miss the mountains of your home. Naturally, you feel out of place. You crave the comforts of your familiar town.

All perfectly natural, even healthy. But then a medical expert tells you that this condition has a name: nostalgia. It’s a potent form of melancholy, one that can make you sick. The expert tells you so. Why wouldn’t you believe them?

So you start to get sick. The nostalgia – a normally harmless emotion – starts poisoning you. How? Because you expect it to.

This is a nocebo – the dark twin to the placebo effect. When you’re given a sugar pill but expect medicine, you expect healing. This expectation is enough to create healing. Nocebos are similar but, when someone expects illness, they become sick.

How can your own mind poison you? It’s a good question, so I’ve added some references below. These scientific papers explore what the nocebo effect is and measure it. As for how it works, well, I keep saying how powerful your inner mind is. This is when that power is mishandled.

Give someone a medical misdiagnosis and there’s a chance they’ll live up to it. Many people trust doctors. They are authorities. So when someone who looks like a doctor, talks like a doctor and is a doctor diagnoses you, some inner part of you listens.

Healing and sickening through nothing but words – it would be magic if it weren’t so scientific. It turns out curses are real, just not in the way any superstitions suggest.

But the nostalgia example is from the 17th century. We’ve come a long way since then… haven’t we?

Well, read those papers below and decide. But if you want a modern example, here’s one:

Depression is a terrible condition. At its worst… well, you know what the worst-case scenario is. Even short of that, depression can leave someone unable to function. Many people owe their sanity, and more, to modern medical advances.

But depression is poorly understood and hard to diagnose. Someone going through a rough patch might need medical help. Or they might just need time, someone to listen to them and a little sunshine. I don’t envy anyone whose job is to diagnose this, because I hear it’s hard to tell the difference. And you don’t want to underdiagnose…

The problem comes when someone with a temporary, fixable, normal mood slump is misdiagnosed with depression. Some people will shake it off. Others will embrace the diagnosis as truth. After all, an expert said it. Even if the doctor runs through the list of caveats – this might not be accurate, lifestyle changes may help – the inner mind has a model for what depression looks like. And, for some people, it might just live up to it.

Now, this is not the majority of cases. Most diagnoses will either be accurate or rejected by the inner mind. But the number of people out there with nocebo-induced depression is non-zero. Remember the nostalgic Swiss – some of them died from this effect. Creating depression from nothing is easy compared to death.

Using Words for Good: Placebos for Success

Scary stuff. What can you do about it?

Firstly, if your doctor or therapist or whoever is a good one, they will prevent this in the first place and can deal with it after the fact. The unconscious mind wants you to be healthy – it just gets confused sometimes. If the medical experts know what’s happening, they can easily treat it.

Secondly, you can use this effect to make yourself stronger. Think about something you want in life. Make it something big. Something that you sometimes doubt you’ll achieve. Something that makes you nervous or excited.

Now you can use this as a meditation or self-hypnosis exercise. Induce a trance and imagine a diagnosis for something good. After all, your inner mind conflates imagination with reality. So imagine the best possible reality, tight when your inner mind is most open to suggestion.

Create a placebo for yourself and throw your full emotional weight behind it. Diagnose yourself with something amazing: a destiny for success. Let every expert and every test concur that you are incredible and great things lie ahead. Overload yourself until you have to believe it.

And if you want to know how… well, all you need to do is unlock the vault.


Nonspecific Medication Side Effects and the Nocebo Phenomenon; Arthur J. Barsky, MD, Ralph Saintfort, MD, Malcolm P. Rogers, MD, et al Jonathan F. Borus, MD; JAMA. 2002;287(5):622-627.

When words are painful: Unraveling the mechanisms of the nocebo effect; F. Benedetti, M. Lanotte, L. Lopiano, L. Colloca; Neuroscience, Volume 147, Issue 2, 29 June 2007, Pages 260-271

The Nocebo Phenomenon: Concept, Evidence, and Implications for Public Health; Robert A.Hahn; Preventive Medicine; Volume 26, Issue 5, September 1997, Pages 607-611

Getting the pain you expect: mechanisms of placebo, nocebo and reappraisal effects in humans; Irene Tracey; Nature Medicine volume 16, pages 1277–1283 (2010)


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