Is it the thing, or your belief in the thing?

happy face placebo

image: iStock photo

What would happen if you were to eat something unhealthy but believe it was good for you … or something healthy but believe it was bad for you? It seems that what we believe matters more than we think.

Take the large US study that examined the connection between stress and health, for instance. Over the measured time period, there were more deaths among those who were listed as ‘high stress’ than in those listed as ‘low stress’. Fair enough. I think most people would get onboard with that.

But hidden among the numbers lay a surprising and startling statistic. The scientists had taken a note of people’s beliefs about stress as well as how stressed they tended to get. They asked them whether they believed that stress is bad for them or not.

It turned out that what they believed made all the difference. The death rate in the low stress group among those who believed stress was bad for them was actually higher than the death rate in the high stress group among the people who didn’t believe stress was bad for them – a seeming reversal of the whole stress-health thing.

In other words, it’s not the stress so much, but what we believe about the stress that seems to matter even more.

I think that’s really quite astonishing! In fact, even more so: When playing around with the numbers from the study, the scientists concluded that 182,000 people had died in the 8 years of the study from the belief that stress is bad for them. According to Dr Kelly McGonigal, who gave an inspiring TED talk on the subject, that means the 15th leading cause of death in the US in the year the study was conducted was actually the belief that stress is bad for you. Wow! A belief in the top 20 leading causes of death! That’s got to be some kind of a record.

I wonder, with many of the stress-health studies that have shown how stress is bad for us, if there was a strong nocebo effect going on – that’s the opposite of a placebo effect. Where a placebo makes people better, the nocebo effect makes people worse if they believe something is harmful for them. Believing stress is bad for you can act like a nocebo effect when you’re under stress, making the effect of the stress even worse.

What do we do with this kind of knowledge? Do we not bother about practicing stress management techniques? Do we dive into any stressful situation without a care in the world? Do we allow ourselves to get stressed and just say, ‘I’ll be OK’?

I’d caution against just allowing ourselves to get stressed. There is a difference between a thought and a belief. I don’t think getting stressed and saying, ‘I’ll be OK’ will cut it. Chances are you’re saying one thing but believing another.

At risk of swaying your beliefs, if we were to take the mind out of the equation, prolonged and consistent stress is harmful to health, and I think most people believe that. The study is powerful because it shows how the mind can sway the effects. There’s implications for all sorts of things, including self-healing, which I’ve written about in some of my books.

I think a healthier approach would be to moderate our stress levels but also remind ourselves, when we do get stressed, that occasional stress won’t do us any harm. It takes the pressure off.

I wonder how much our beliefs apply to the foods we eat. I started to eat a healthier diet around 12 years ago. Prior to this, I can honestly say that, despite being well educated (degree and PhD) and an amateur athlete at the time, I had almost no nutritional knowledge.

After attending an inspiring talk on nutrition, I made some dramatic changes to my diet. The modifications I made gave me more energy, especially in the afternoon, and a much clearer mind, which is very useful if you’re a writer. I also lost 18 pounds in weight in 7 weeks.

But once I was a healthier eater, I remember being worried about eating anything deemed unhealthy. I went through a phase of unintentionally (and frustratingly) imagining fat going onto my stomach any time I ate some bread, chips or chocolate. My first thought was, ‘This is bad’. But was it as bad as that or was it my belief that was ‘bad’?

My mind obsessed when I ate any of the things I used to eat. In some of my books and workshops I teach how visualization can be used a positive tool to heal the body. I was using it in the opposite way.

Before I became knowledgeable, I didn’t really think of my previous diet as bad for me. In fact, I actually believed that the things I was eating were good for me. I believed they gave me strength and energy. Now I was thinking of those kinds of foods as energy sapping, acid-forming, sugar-laden crap. Were they really all those things?

In the news, we’ve recently learned that butter isn’t the enemy after all. In fact, it’s quite good for us. But I wonder how many people experienced negative effects of butter in their diet because they believed it was bad for them.

How much do our beliefs about foods affect how the foods affect us? If we were to take the mind out of the food equation, chemistry still plays out. I’m a trained chemist. Chemistry happens by itself in test tubes. The thing is, if you put human consciousness in a test tube, it will modify the chemistry to an extent. That’s what the placebo (and nocebo) effect tells us. Some foods enhance our health in the long-term and some are, well, not so good in the long-term, but our beliefs will sway the effect either way.

In a mirror of the stress study, I suspect that eating a healthy diet but believing even the smallest slip-up is bad will have some negative consequences and eating an unhealthy diet but believing it is good for you will have some positive consequences. The question is how much of an effect the mind exerts.

To be honest, I’m not sure how much. Over the years I’ve cultivated what I think is a healthy approach. At least it brings me some peace of mind. I go for a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruits, greens, and salads, and I eat mostly natural, unprocessed, things. But I also have a belief that occasional ‘treats’ won’t do me any harm. I believe this is a good approach. I know it’s just my belief, but I’m OK with it for now.

So long as I believe in it, I guess it’s doing me some good. 🙂

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  1. carol on March 26, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks for this David I have an amethyst crystal I keep in my pocket when I am at work & if I stressed I just but my hand in and touch the Crystal it makes me feel Better but if I did not have the Crystal would I probably be more stressed ?It’s an interesting point but it’s only what I do I believe what ever works for you in a healthy way to cope with things help do I make sense to you David? Light&luv Carol )))

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:56 am

      I like your little crystal method, Carol. Regardless of how it works, as long as you have a positive association between the crystal and feeling better, then all good. Incidentally, I have always had a curiosity regarding crystals. I found that quartz crystal is highly paramagnetic and I’m sure paramagnetism has biological effects. For instance, I read somewhere a few years ago (might have been a book called, ‘Paramagnetism’, actually, (by Phillip Callaghan, I think. He’s a professor of entomology)). Anyway, I read that paramagnetism affects plant growth. I did a few crude experiments of my own, back in 2004, with rose quartz and saw quite an acceleration of the germination and initial growth of cress seeds, and that was without any contact between the crystal and the seeds. I did this to test the paramagnetism and eliminate any nutrients or impurities in the crystal that might affect growth. To increase surface area, I ground the crystal up a little too, and it seemed to help. 🙂

  2. michaela on March 26, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    A thing is only a thing so it has to be your belief of the thing 🙂

  3. Michelle - Germany on March 26, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Wow, absolutely fascinating and so relevant for me right now! I had the same thing regarding “healthy” foods, especially carbs which I almost cut out apart from wholemeal grain bread. I did this to deal with a sudden rise in blood sugar and a diagnosis of Diabetes in 2011. it worked very very quickly and I lost weight. But after over 2 strict years I have had the odd craving and succumbed( just a small piece of cake or the oaccasional pasta meal) …BUT feeling guilty and bad about it!!! Result is a weight gain, although my sugar level has never been lower. I truly and utterly believe it is almost ALL about belief…..and the focus of the mind. The best thing of all is moderation in all things AND a feeling and belief in one’s good health and healthy body. If only the media etc was not always brainwashing us into thinking we MUST get ill soon…to sell us some other product or drug. The focus MUST be on GOOD HEALTH…not what can “go wrong”…. all the time.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:50 am

      It’s good that you’re becoming so good at catching your own beliefs, Michelle. 🙂 Yes, I too agree that focus must be on good health and not on what can go wrong. The latter creates fear and sows the seeds of negative beliefs regarding health. I think, largely, governments and media organisations don’t yet fully understand (although some individuals do and are creating change) just how much the mind affects the body. Good for you that you’re taking control of your own thinking and your own health. 🙂

  4. Vida Green on March 26, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Hi David, i have just read your article re stress… i am always stressed about everything, but do try to stop because i also believe what you say in your book “how your mind can heal your body” its my bible.


  5. Sam on March 26, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Thanks for this latest blog David. In a similar vein your comments about how our beliefs can affect our physical responses to stress or perceived stress and our beliefs acting as a kind of interface between the mind and body made me think about my own experiences in relation to food. You mentioned nutrition and how you perceived things to be bad or good for you. I was wondering if any research had been carried out on specific parts of the brain being influenced by our beliefs in food, such as the part of our brain that manages taste? I recall how I always hated olives and how they would make me think of eating soap, (not that soap was a feature of my diet mind you!) but because I heard olives can be good for you and as a way of shifting my lifestyle I began retraining my mind/brain telling myself they actually tasted lovely and now I adore their taste; in fact I have bouts of obsession with olives ha ha. I think my drive to be healthier and present myself to others as healthier actually altered my taste buds??? Do you have any information on whether this is actually possible? I know you referred in your article to chemistry shifting itself if in a test tube so thought it theoretically plausible that perhaps our belief system could alter our tastes on a physical level? What about other senses too? Hope I have made sense here! Cheers 🙂
    PS. Have voted on Kindred Spirit. Good Luck!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:45 am

      Hi Sam, Glad you enjoyed this blog. To be honest, I’ve not researched the scientific literature so much with regards to nutrition and especially how beliefs affect the brain with regards to food. However, I would say that the brain creates connections between things just as we do; for instance, as you linked olives with soap, so the brain creates a connection between the two things – olives and soapy taste – so that when you try to eat and olive, it can be repulsive. But, as you say, when you form a different idea in your mind, you really are re-training your brain because the brain creates a new connection in response to what you’re imagining. It’s the basis for how NLP, NAC, and other phobia therapies work.

      There is some interesting research around food and the mind, though, that might fascinate you. Research has shown that when people imagine eating, the brain processes it as if they actually are eating. The more they imagine eating, the more ‘full’ they feel, as was measured in the study when after imagining eating they ate less food offered to them immediately afterwards than people who hadn’t imagined eating. I suspect the way it works is that imagining eating affects some of the same brain regions as actually eating (you have to do it bite for bite, chew for chew, so that imagining eating a meal takes as long as actually eating the meal), so the brain signals the body to say, ‘I’m getting full’. I’d caution against imagining eating sugary foods as it might, then, tip into affecting blood sugar. The research is still in its infancy, but fascinating all the same. Here’s a link to the blog I wrote on it, where you can also access the link to the research paper:

      David 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:45 am

      ps., thanks, Sam, for voting for me in the Kindred Spirit awards. 🙂

  6. dawn on March 26, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    so true! dr. norm shealy said doctors told him to lose a few pounds. he decided he would do it by ‘adding’ an ounce of chocolate before he went to bed and that would be ‘the thing’ to get him to his optimal weight. sure enough, it worked. he ‘believed’ and his body obliged! thanks for your brilliant writing and oscar stories! (we have a husky and i say ‘love love love’ or ‘i am healing for dargo’s body’ directly into his food bowl – he then eats every bite happily!)

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

      That made me smile, re Dr Norm Shealy. Yes, belief is a powerful thing Dawn. Glad you enjoy reading my Oscar stories. I can imagine they remind you of your husky. 🙂

  7. Kathy on March 27, 2014 at 2:49 am

    Love this commentary! I have, myself, have finally allowed myself to eat a ”treat’ now and again even though others may say it is unhealthy. Like Abraham says, it is all in our beliefs and feelings. As always, I enjoy your books and videos, that keep me ‘on track’ with my thoughts regarding my health etc. Thank you!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:33 am

      Glad to have helped, Kathy. 🙂

  8. Linda Anderson on March 27, 2014 at 8:58 am

    Absolutely agree David. I say to people during my courses. you can either be promoting your healing or preventing your healing , not just by what you eat but the way you think about what you eat. I also belive that what you are thinking about while you are eating can affect the food and therefore affect within us ( hopefully chefs are not too stressed while preparing the food either)
    It takes you are what you eat to a whole new level. interesting reading your views as always . X

  9. Teresa on March 27, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Thank you for that food for thought. I am going to try your belief theory when tackling things I need to do. I hope to get to see you for the first time when you are next in Birmingham and this time I actually believe I will.
    Regards Teresa

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Maybe see you in Birmingham Teresa. 🙂

  10. Marcus on March 27, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    I am so with you on this, but I played out “belief” to the endth degree. I was thinking about all those espionage stories and the cold war and all the legends we heard about people getting poisoned, or even a disgruntled wife poisening her husband,

    If you don’t believe you are taking a poison when you drink your wine laced with some known poison will it effect you? As you said chemistry still happens, but if the person didn’t believe they were being poisoned or about to be poisoned will it effect them?

    At the Kool-aid incident at Jonestown, everyone knew (believed) they were taking cyanide. Socrates knew he was taking hemlock People in powerful positions or in the espionage game maybe constantly paranoid about being poisoned so may believe they are about to be poisoned.

    Look forward to your thoughts.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on March 28, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Hi Marcus, it’s a good question and the answer, I think, is kind of blurry. 🙂 Chemistry happens but belief affects chemistry, and the size of the effect varies from one person to the next, probably largely due to different ‘strengths’ of beliefs from one person to the next.

      For instance, if a person who is receiving morphine for severe pain is given a placebo, the placebo won’t take his pain away (for most people), but if the person is given morphine for a few days, then on the third day it is swapped for a placebo (saline), the placebo works. One way to look at what happened is that the person’s belief that ‘this medicine takes the pain away’ got stronger each time it took the pain away. By the third day, the belief was strong enough to take the pain away. It’s known as conditioning. I suspect some people are able to access a super strong belief right away, perhaps where they have a strong belief (faith) in a person administering the ‘medicine’.

      As to whether some people could resist the effects of poisons through belief that they will be fine, I’d personally not like to test that one on myself. 🙂 Or, the other way, people being poisoned by placebos. Again, chemistry will always play out, but HOW it plays out, I’m sure, is affected to a large degree by a person’s beliefs. I believe some people have resisted poisons in this way, and some have also got sick on placebos (called the nocebo effect). The effect will be stronger in both cases when you have a large group of people believing the same thing. It’s known as ‘Mass Psychogenic Illness’, or otherwise known as ‘Mass Hysteria’.

      I hope that helps. 🙂

  11. Marcus on March 28, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Thanks for your long response, it got me thinking some more and I just can’t leave this one alone. My Mum died from a poison (asbestos) but she didn’t know it was a poison. I also was exposed to the same poison and I now know it’s a poison, but I don’t believe anything will come of it. So to test your theory, I just have, and seven years after my Mum’s passing, I am feeling great, but I have an emotional theory on that. Plus it’s a bit different to an immidiate poisoning.
    Would morphine still work, if the patient was told they were getting nothing on the first shot?

  12. carol on March 30, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Thanks for your reply David I find that crystals fascinate me just knowing the Crystal is in my pocket keeps me calm.and relaxed and people have noticed a positive change in me so that’s good . I used to lose the rag a lot at work also because I am deaf and know what I want to say but it never came out the way I expected it to I think first I Don,t just instantly react to things that I would have to in the past so it’s,been a great learning curve for me and my colleagues. . Love your website & books ! Hope I make sense to you Carol ))))

  13. Miriam Granthier on March 30, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Great article, thank you. I do think that the ‘vibe’ or energy of a food matters, and if we take time to stop and sense this we are more likely to be drawn to unprocessed more natural food. However the vibe of a home-made crumble (which may be full of sugar and fat) has such a lovely vibe, from the preparation and the anticipation and the eating it together, I don’t believe it can be bad food. Is the vibe of the food in the food or in our mind though? This is an interesting question. I was brought up to say ‘grace’ and to bless food before eating it – I habit I gave up as a teenager, but recently I have wondered whether this is quite a good idea, and I think your article may agree with this, if we feel good about the food on our plate and bless it or feel gratitude, might it be healthier? PS So pleased about butter – I’ve always thought butter is uncontaminated and prefer it to low fat spreads, I’ve never been able to believe butter is ‘bad’ and so I’m delighted to continue to delight in it on occasions when only butter will do!

  14. Anji on April 1, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Horizon recently had a programme about placebos, it was very interesting. Belief plays a bit part I think, but the body also responds almost instinctively. Surely natural healing is demonstrated
    very positively with regards to belief, i.e. faith. It does not have to be anything to do with religious belief. I have had results with children and animals who have no obvious knowledge.