How to Hack the Placebo Effect

Flickr - Placebo - epSos.deKeith R. Holden, M.D., Contributor
Waking Times

Research on the placebo effect is ramping up across the world because it proves the amazing power of the mind in health and healing. Peer-reviewed medical journals are reporting information about the placebo effect that was just a few years ago considered pseudoscience by science-based skeptics and academicians.

Researchers who study the placebo effect know that clinical studies must be designed that carefully control for variables, such as spontaneous remission and bias, to accurately determine the real placebo effect.[1] They also know these studies must include a no treatment group. These more carefully designed studies reveal that a large part of the real placebo effect lies in psychological factors, such as expectation, learning, and conditioning.[2]

Because of misinformation and a lack of understanding, most traditional health care practitioners are biased against the placebo effect, labeling it a form of deception. This labeling is shortsighted, ignores context, and gives the placebo effect a bad reputation it doesn’t deserve.[3] Even when the research lays out the various components of the placebo effect, most health care practitioners still don’t know how to apply this information in a way that supports their patients.

In this article, I’ll help you understand the psychological concepts of the real placebo effect so that you can, in combination with meditation, hack your own placebo effect to improve your health.

Combining Psychological Concepts with Mindfulness and Meditation

Meditation strengthens your higher awareness, which in combination with these psychological concepts has the potential to turbocharge your placebo effect in real-time. When you meditate, you trigger your relaxation response, and your brain waves transition from a higher frequency beta predominance to a lower frequency alpha and theta predominance. This increased alpha and theta predominance of brain waves helps shift your consciousness into a state of openness and higher awareness.

  • The shift from a state of over-analysis and judgment into a state of openness to possibilities triggers the consciousness of your higher mind, or higher self, to align with the consciousness of your subconscious mind. In part, it is this alignment that enables you to hack your own placebo effect by creating your own ritual of the therapeutic act. For those of you who read my prior article on the placebo effect, you know that the ritual of the therapeutic act holds the keys to triggering your placebo effect. You create your own rituals of therapeutic acts every day through your thoughts and beliefs regarding your health.

    An easy way to meditate is to simply go into a quiet area, relax into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin to take slow relaxed breaths using your diaphragm instead of your chest muscles. Pay attention to your breath, and if you get distracted, return your attention to your breath. If a negative emotion such as anger arises, acknowledge it by saying in your mind, “I’m feeling anger,” and the distracting emotion will usually move on. Then come back to your breath. You already know how to belly-breathe because you did it as a baby. If you need a little reminder, here is a short video.

    The Hacking Process

    As you drop into a deeper state of meditation, set a positive expectation for being well, and then, in whatever way resonates with you, visualize and feel what it’s like to be optimally healthy. As you continue to relax, your brain waves will shift more and more from a beta to alpha and theta predominance. When you shift into an alpha, and especially theta predominance, the consciousness of your higher mind, or higher self, begins to align with the realm of your subconscious mind.

    As this alignment occurs, you enter a state of consciousness not bound by space or time, and one that doesn’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s not real. Visualizing and feeling what it’s like to be completely well in your deeper brainwave states during meditation conditions your body-mind to this new reality. As you become conditioned to this new reality, you are much more likely to create a shift in your physiology to make that reality so.

    Have Positive Expectations to Reduces Anxiety

    Placebo effect research shows that positive expectations reduce anxiety. When you bring an expectation of being well into deeper brainwave states, and begin to feel that possibility as a reality, you reduce your anxiety, which automatically increases parasympathetic tone in your autonomic nervous system. This increased parasympathetic tone initiates repair processes, reduces cortisol levels, and increases heart rate variability; all of which result in rejuvenation and rebalancing of your body’s systems.

    When you truly believe in your expectation of being well, you reduce your anxiety, and condition your body-mind so that your inner physician turns on to heal you.

    Expect Reward

    Placebo effect research also shows that when you have expectation for reward, you anticipate being rewarded by getting well. But if you have limiting beliefs stuck in your subconscious mind that say you don’t deserve a reward, or you don’t deserve to get well, this may block your inner physician placebo effect from being triggered.

    One way to test for limiting beliefs that may be stuck in your subconscious mind is to use positive affirmations. For example, say to yourself “I deserve to be rewarded” or “I deserve to be well.” How do those statements feel to you? Do they feel right? Do you resonate with those affirmations? If those statements don’t feel right; if those statements create a negative feeling or negative charge in your body-mind, then you may need to use a technique for removing these limiting beliefs. I teach that technique in my course called “Power of the Mind in Health and Healing.”

    Condition Yourself

    Conditioning means learning through association, and you can maximize conditioning related to the placebo effect by conditioning yourself in your meditations. You can condition yourself to associate certain mantras, music tracks, or guided meditations with seeing and feeling yourself being completely well. When you do this, your mind begins to associate the mantra or the music with you actually being well. From that point on, your body’s physiology shifts into wellness mode when you say those mantras or hear that music.

    Use Social Learning

    Another psychological component of the placebo effect is social learning, which involves you healing because you see or hear of others being healed. I encourage you to read others’ stories about conquering disease, as this is a powerful form of social learning that helps trigger your placebo effect.

    Reinforce Your Expectations

    Reinforcing expectations is another powerful psychological aspect of the placebo effect. You can use mindfulness to guard against negative thoughts and beliefs regarding your health, which indirectly helps reinforce your expectation for being well. It’s impossible to completely guard against negative thoughts because many negative thoughts are triggered from your subconscious mind. These thoughts can bubble up even before you are fully aware of them.

    You can mindfully recognize when a negative thought does bubble up, acknowledge it as a thought, which isn’t necessarily a truth, and then let it pass before the thought triggers any significant negative impact on your physiology. This is a skill that requires honing through repetition, but as you continue to meditate and practice mindfulness, you’ll get better and better at it. The reason you’ll get better is because your brain and nervous system are able to adapt through a process called neuroplasticity.

    Reinforce your expectations of being whole and well in your meditations by staying as positive as you can about your belief of being well. I’m not asking you to be in denial about what’s going on with your health. This concept is about living a balanced life so that you regularly reinforce expectations for being well amidst negative thoughts about your health that commonly arise.

    Use Optimism as a Tipping Point

    Optimism is important when it comes to magnifying your power of belief in the placebo effect. Research shows that if you are an optimist, you are much more likely to experience a placebo effect resulting in positive impacts on your physiology.[4]

    If you are prone to pessimism, you can use mindfulness to be more aware when you are being pessimistic, and then use the power of your mind to practice being optimistic. When you regularly practice being optimistic, the neuroplasticity of your brain kicks in to create deep and long-lasting neuronal pathways of optimism.

    A major benefit of optimism is an increased chance of experiencing a placebo effect resulting in improved health. The reverse is also true. If you are a pessimist, you increase your chances of experiencing a nocebo effect; meaning, if you have a negative attitude, you are much more likely to experience a negative physiologic reaction to medications and therapeutic encounters.[5]

    The ability to hack your own placebo effect and create optimal health through the power of your mind is becoming increasingly apparent from the results of placebo effect research. As with any skill you wish to hone, it just takes a little practice. 

    Embrace a Paradox 

    Despite the emerging science, we still don’t understand all the facets of why some people are better at triggering a placebo effect than others. There are many variables yet to be discovered. It won’t hurt for you to try this approach as long as you surrender to this paradox – you can always heal without being cured.

    Inherent in this paradox is that often the first step in healing is through accepting the way things are. After that, you experience the freedom to live life through the eyes of a child, exploring your possibility for healing with curiosity and playfulness despite being diagnosed with a disease.

    Now use these concepts to explore your potential for healing. I set a divine intention with you that you’re pleasantly surprised by the results.

    About the Author

    Dr. Keith Holden is a physician who is board certified in Internal Medicine and trained in Functional Medicine. He has a special interest in parapsychology, mind-body medicine, and spirituality in medicine. His popular course on, “Power of the Mind in Health and Healing,” teaches how to use the power of your mind to heal your body and maximize your intuition.


    [1] Benedetti F, Carlino E, Pollo A. How placebos change the patient’s brain. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(1):339-54.

    [2] Benedetti F. Placebo and the new physiology of the doctor-patient relationship. Physiol Rev. 2013;93(3):1207-46.

    [3] Miller FG, Kaptchuk TJ. The power of context: reconceptualizing the placebo effect. J R Soc Med. 2008;101(5):222-5.

    [4] Morton DL, Watson A, El-deredy W, Jones AK. Reproducibility of placebo analgesia: Effect of dispositional optimism. Pain. 2009;146(1-2):194-8.

    [5]Data-franco J, Berk M. The nocebo effect: a clinicians guide. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2013;47(7):617-23.

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    About the Author:

    Dr. Keith Holden is a physician board certified in Internal Medicine and trained in Functional Medicine. He has a special interest in parapsychology, mind-body medicine, and spirituality in medicine. His popular course on, “Power of the Mind in Health and Healing,” teaches how to harness the power of your mind to heal your body and maximize your intuition.

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