Magicians who work with hypnosis and suggestion will often say that some people are more susceptible than others. The same is true of the placebo effect and it’s antonym – the nocebo effect.
I first heard of nocebo through a youtube video, it started out by pretending to be about frequencies of noise, and stated that it would play a sound that was beyond human hearing but caused ear pain and headaches. As soon as the sound was played I covered my ears, such pain! My husband looked at me like I was mad. He felt nothing. He was incredibly smug moments later when the video announced there had been no sound. I was shocked, but I had felt it! How could I have had pain in my ears at that exact moment if there was no secret pain sound? The answer was simple, nocebo. The idea that by telling someone “this will hurt you” it will hurt them.
I was not surprised that I was susceptible to the nocebo and my husband was not. I am quite a gullible person generally whereas he is always the sceptic. When I’ve walked into work and someone has asked “Are you okay? You look a bit ill” I will quickly think “actually I don’t feel that good”, whereas moments before I would have said I was fine. My husband however is ever the contrarian, “you’ll like this film” almost always ends up with “this is rubbish”.
So armed with this new knowledge that I am susceptible to negative as well as positive suggestions I have taken to avoiding things that will negatively bias me. A major one is that I do not read the side effects leaflets when I get a new medication. How will I know if I am really having a side effect or just experiencing a nocebo? There is no way to know, so by avoiding reading about them I guarantee that anything I feel is real. It’s a weird feeling questioning your own reality and I try to avoid it wherever possible.
Recently though I had a genuine side effect. I have recently made a change from citalopram, my antidepressant since 2016, to mirtazapine as after 3 years I wasn’t getting much of an effect anymore so I made the long and stressful change over. This transition meant weaning off of one and onto the other across a couple of months. After a week of the full dose of mirtazapine I started having an insatiable hunger. This was around the time I posted about trying to lose weight, so at first I thought my cravings were a reaction to trying to eat less. However no matter how much I ate I was still ravenous. One day I literally ate until I was sick. It was awful!
When I went to the doctors for my fortnightly check in I mentioned that I was having issues with eating as I was worried I had developed an eating disorder (I have previously had issues with food as a teenager). The doctor was surprised and we talked about possible causes and then suddenly she said “AH HA! It’s the new drugs!”, it turns out the group of drugs that mirtazapine belongs to are known for causing ravenous hunger, particularly cravings for carbs (something I did not need help with as I am already a pasta addict).
This caused me to reflect, when I had approached the doctor about changing antidepressants, we had selected mirtazapine as it helps with sleep, and I had been having bouts of insomnia. Would I have gone with it if I had known this side effect though? Probably not. So should I have done more research into the options available and what potential pitfalls I might experience? I don’t know is the honest answer. As someone who is highly suggestable reading all the side effects would have meant I was looking out for them and potentially willing them into existence. However the trade off is I am now having to work around a very unhelpful side effect because I wasn’t educated in the risks.
Is ignorance bliss? Or does being armed with the facts alway help, even if, like me, you might end up experiencing a nocebo effect?