Placebo and Nocebo According to Dr Rankin

The mind is powerful. How we think is even more weighty than what our genes are. Having the “right” attitude and perspective therefore could make the difference in healthy and healing. Having positive or negative thoughts has very different biochemical effects and material manifestation. In this article, we look at the placebo and nocebo effects and the studies Dr Lissa Rankin used to illustrate the mind-body connection in her book Mind Over Medicine. Perhaps more importantly, we give you takeaways to put this principle into motion, to work for you.

What is the Placebo Effect?

The word placebo has been in our lexicon for decades now. Some people call it “sugar water” or “sugar pill.”

A placebo is 1) a substance without medicine/drug, 2) an inactive preparation or 3) a procedure used as a control in experiments designed to test new drugs.

A placebo does not actually have to be a pill, surgery, or injection. Even pushing the crosswalk button can be one – it makes you feel in control.1

It is basically a “fake” treatment. But yet, placebos work and often boast stats as good or even better than pharmaceuticals. A placebo can work half as well as aspirin and morphine for pain.1

For many people, a placebo carries a not-so-great connotation. Placebos were once given to “neurotic” patients to calm them down. The other definition of placebo is to placate someone. In Latin, it means “I shall please”.

The Placebo Effect, as this phenomenon is known, is very interesting and holds clues to how the mind works.

Dr Lissa Rankin talks extensively about placebos in her book Mind Over Medicine and shares interesting case studies to illustrate the power of thought. One of these cases is about a man diagnosed with terminal cancer. That patient died months later, just as the doctor determined, diagnosed, and advised. It was however discovered that the test results were wrong. They belonged to someone else. The patient had no cancer. This is the power of the mind and yes, it can work against us.

So what happened?

Beliefs, Biography, Biology. Placebos and Nocebos

Through case studies and other research, Dr Lissa Rankin shows that the beliefs we hold can be even more deterministic than our biology. Caroline Myss sees our biography creating our biology.

Placebos actually change our biochemistry. When we believe we are doing something to get better, we switch from the Stress Response to the Relaxation Response. We fight, flight or freeze as part of the Stress Response.  We heal in the Relaxation Response, when our body does not need to divert all resources to functions vital for immediate survival.

The positive thoughts that flood in also activate healing hormones.

And what happens when we think in the negative? That something will not work?

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.

Henry Ford


The opposite of the Placebo Effect is the Nocebo Effect. In one study Dr Lissa Rankin shares, patients were given a harmless solution for their asthma but were told it contained irritating allergens when it did not. The subjects started wheezing and even had bronchial constrictions. We can actually experience negative changes in our body when we believe that to be the truth.

#FoodforThought – Know that words from authority figures, including medical doctors, parents, and everyone you put on a pedestal, can have a subconscious effect on you.

So what do placebos and nocebos mean for your well-being?

What placebos and nocebos show is that the mind-body connection is real. The mind-body is one. It also reminds us how important it is for us to listen to our own body – to heed its warnings of underlying imbalances and to trust our instincts about what is really “wrong” in our lives.

Dr Lissa Rankin found that when she asked her patients what they needed to do, they didn’t say things like they need Prozac or some other drug. They offered ideas such as quitting their job or fixing a toxic marriage. They may not know medical prescriptions; they know what is out of balance in their lives. It’s whether there is will, strength, courage, and support to change the current situation.

We are responsible to our illness, not for our illness.

Dr Christiane Northrup


Disease is dis-ease. We are not comfortable on some level in some area of our life. It could have been triggered by trauma, accident, soul loss, or deep grief. This causes a stagnation – blocked or frozen energy.

Whatever is “off” needs to be resolved, healed, and integrated. Many people find on their healing journey a return or an expansion of their energy, connection, and spirituality. To learn to trust again and to let go.

Placebos and Nocebos and Your Health

What is not being advocated is wishful thinking or denial but a holistic view of what is going on. The mind, with its survivalist reptilian brain, can become hyper vigilant in looking for “what’s wrong”.  We may thus be more prone to “negative” thought. It is good to remember this, especially when we start ruminating.

It is also helpful to understand that illness plays a major life-altering, life-affirming role. Illness is a crossroad of choices, of many choices. A call to be embodied once again. To come back into our body. To sit in our own awareness.

This is not to say to come off your medication or medical treatment without support. Listen to our body to see what it needs, and work with practitioners who honour your voice and participation.

Key Takeaways about Placebos and Nocebos

① Shift Your Perspective

How we perceive a situation, whether it is positive or negative or whether it is stressful or not, impacts our well-being. Healthy thoughts and unhealthy thoughts change our physiology in different ways. Positive belief can heal. Dr Lissa Rankin’s book is abound with clinical examples.

② Make Lifestyle Changes

Oftentimes, as Dr Lissa Rankin points out, it isn’t (more) medication people need but changes to their life. This could be minor or major. The key is to find the ones that move the needle on the wellness meter. Even small changes can make a big difference.

The outside reflects the inside and the inside reflects the outside. Take a look at the different areas of your life and see which are misaligned. Take that salsa class or pottery workshop or learn to skydive. Ramp up your life skills with stress reduction techniques, be it meditation, yoga, gardening…Get good at shifting to your Relaxation Response.

Make positive life-affirming changes that expand your energy. Be aware of distractions and forms of escapism.

③ Listen to Yourself

We know something is wrong and maybe even what is wrong. Even if we may not be able to diagnose it or label it. We know what needs to be adjusted, let go, healed, etc. We know what is making us unhappy, stressed, angry, resentful, regretful…Maybe the mere acknowledgement is enough to shift it. Often we need to muster our courage and strength from deep within. Perhaps work with a therapist, a practitioner, a coach, or some other professional?

④ Focus on Well-Being

What we focus on grows. Energy follows intention. Remember the body is wired to heal – it is a survival mechanism. What about getting wired for joy?

So what is your prescription for your health?



Read What Therapy’s book review of Mind over Medicine by Lissa Rankin
1 Keogh, D and Harris, LL (2009) The Placebo Effect[link]