The Incredible Power of Thought

Having run a clinical trials group in the 1990s, I have long been aware of the phenomenon of the placebo effect: how ingesting a sugar pill (or an equivalent neutral substance) with absolutely no scientifically demonstrated efficacy can have a measurable impact on physical and mental health. A metanalysis was recently published in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, reviewing the results of numerous studies conducted over the past few years on the placebo effect.  The rather astounding conclusion of the study was that the strength of the placebo effect has DOUBLED over the past 10 years.  In other words, if for example 10% of people in the control leg of a study conducted in 1999 reported relief of symptoms by taking a placebo, 20% of people reported relief in 2009.

The recognition of the reality of the placebo effect was in and of itself challenging to traditional medical thinking.  It demonstrated conclusively that people’s thoughts impacted their physical well-being: if someone merely THOUGHT they were ingesting a therapeutic substance, there was a  certain probability that it would have beneficial effects, whether or not it contained any “proven effective” ingredients.  

An article by Olivia Judson in the May 4, 2010 New York Times notes another fascinating angle to the placebo phenomenon: "Placebo treatments are more powerful if your doctor believes in them. They are also more powerful if the doctor tells you so. In one study, for example, patients who had just come out of surgery were given a saline infusion, and — whenever they asked for it — the pain killer buprenorphine. However, some patients were told the saline infusion was a powerful painkiller, others that it might be one, while a third group wasn’t told anything. Over the course of three days, those in the “know-nothing” group asked for more buprenorphine than those in the “maybe” group, who in turn asked for more than those told they were getting a real drug."

As a former advertising executive, I have to believe that he doubling of the placebo effect’s power is directly attributable to the explosion of pharmaceutical advertising in the past decade.  We are now bombarded with messages that there are medications that can effectively treat literally hundreds of conditions, many of which the layperson was unaware until recently.  So now, when a participant in the placebo leg of a clinical trial is given a pill, it’s quite natural for that person to assume that it must be having SOME effect. 

The relevant conclusion that emerges for me: Since how you THINK you should feel dictates at least to some degree how you actually DO feel, it’s worth investing time and energy in training one’s mind to think along more positive lines, and to be more careful in filtering out the unwanted messages of the culture we’re immersed in.  For ideas on how to train your mind to think more positively, see my article "Changing Your Reality" and my blog of January, 2010: "Choosing Your Thoughts".  As for filtering the unwanted messages, pay attention to how much “news” you’re ingesting, as well as to  how many commercials you’re watching.   Unfortunately, much of the “news” is focused on the negative (messages of attack by one party against another, and messages designed to engender a level of fear so that you will turn back to the news frequently to monitor the latest developments), and many of the commercial messages being broadcast are designed to heighten anxiety so that the advertiser’s product will be purchased as the solution to the anxiety-producing problem (notice how often the words “control” appear in ads). 

Be vigilant about what kind of thoughts you allow to be aimed at you, and about what kinds of thoughts you dwell on.  These thoughts have more power than you may realize!


Daily Preventive Care for Your Relationship

The current issue of Psychotherapy Networker, the most widely read publication on marriage counseling, contains recommendations for several techniques that couples should use to "retrain" old, dysfunctional patterns of relating.  As I read through them, it was clear to me that adopting the use of some or all of these techniques (which I've slightly modified) could enhance the strength of relationships that are fundamentally healthy, as opposed to using them to repair a ruptured connection.

Technique #1: Thoughts: Set aside a few seconds several times a day to think of a positive quality about your partner: the way he laughs at your jokes, the calm she demonstrates when you get ruffled, his skill at fixing things, what a great Mom she is.  What you're thinking about your partner while separated has a huge influence on how you'll interact when you come together.  Relatedly:

Technique #2: Writing: Once a week (perhaps over the weekend) take a couple of minutes to write a couple of sentences about something that your partner did during the week that was pleasing to you. Try to include a couple of visual details to strengthen the imagery and its staying power (e.g. "he was undoing his tie when he complimented me on how well I handled his mother"; "she looked up from the computer and then told me how toned I looked").

Technique #3: Hugs:  Hug your partner tightly (pressing your pelvis and chest against him/her) at least three, but preferably six times a day, and hold the hug for a minimum of five seconds.  This close physical contact will increase the chance of raising the level of oxytocin in your system, oxyctocin being the hormone that plays the primary role in bonding.  Even if the hugs feel a bit strained and awkward at first, it's probable that you'll soon find yourself "getting into" the hugs, and feeling a closer connection with your partner. 

Technique #4: Gestures: At three major "transitional" times of the day, (e.g. before getting out of bed in the morning, before leaving the house for work, upon arriving home, right before dinner, or the last thing at night) make some brief, nonverbal acknowledgment of your partner's importance to you.  This could take the form of a touch on the hand, a gaze into the eyes, or a wink.

More globally, Dr. John Gottman ( ), who has done the most extensive research on relationships ever undertaken, has found that the healthiest relationships are those in which one partner's "bids*" are met with a positive acknowledgment or response by the other partner.  Pay attention to your partner's bids, and acknowledge or, even better, respond positively whenever you can.

* Gottman defines a "bid" as the fundamental unit of emotional communication. "A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch -- any single expression that says, 'I want to feel connected to you.' "  Bids exist not only between romantic partners, but between friends, relatives, and business associates.  A romantic bid might take the form of a "come hither" look; the invitation could be denied in a positive way "I wish I were horny," or in a negative way "I'm too tired for sex."  A fellow worker's suggestion to have lunch could be responded to with a positive denial ("I wish I had the time" ) or a negative one ( "Who has time for lunch with the workload at this place?").





"You're Getting Warmer" - Small Steps That Can Lead to Discovering the Right Career Path

As a child you most likely played a game called "You're Getting Warmer".  The objective of the game was to have a blindfolded person locate a hidden object or by directing them through clues.  As the person got closer to the object the other player(s) would say "You're Getting Warmer".  If the person moved further away the response was "You're Getting Colder".

That game is a useful analogy in thinking about how to find the path to the right career.  Most of the clients who come to me for career counseling or coaching are disheartened because they don't have a clear or passionate idea as to what their next career should be.  In fact, very few people are lucky enough to know that.  Most of us need to undertake a process of exploration in order to narrow options and help determine the right direction to pursue for a new career.  THIS IS NOT SOMETHING THAT CAN BE "FIGURED OUT"!  Nor is it something that career testing will reveal.  What is necessary is to undertake a series of small experiments, each of which will tell you whether you're "getting warmer" or colder.*  Small experiments are relatively easily undertaken and involve little or no risk.

What kind of experiments am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

- Enroll in a class.  If you have an interest in, for example,  opening a restaurant, or becoming a jewelry designer, a nurse, or a landscape architect, take or audit a class.  You're guaranteed to learn more about the field of interest, and that learning will either lead to a desire for more, or you will realize that it's not for you.

-Join a group. lists 2,339 groups meeting within 25 miles of Washington D.C. The groups are made up of individuals with an interest in topics ranging from advertising to entrepreneurship to interior design to yoga.  This is an ideal way to find out more about an area of interest, as you'll be able to talk with numerous people who are in the field.

-Research.  The Internet is your road to a wealth of information about every conceivable career.  It can also point you to books and articles that will help you decide whether "you're getting warmer" or not.

-Volunteer / Internship.  Although not applicable to every area of potential interest, you can learn about many careers in this way.  Don't overlook industry associations.

-Talk to people already in the field. Even in today's highly challenging employment environment you may be surprised at how many people are willing to take the time to talk about their careers.  Be prepared going into these conversations with a list of specific questions (e.g. "How did you become intrested in...."; "What's the most challenging aspect of being a....."; "If you had all the time in the world what would you do to better prepare yourself to be a....."  LinkedIn is an ideal tool to locate these individuals.  Don't overlook people who spent time in the career but have subsequently left it.

-Attend an industry event (a trade show, lecture, workshop, or conference) and be sure to engage a number of people there in dialogue about what they do (see above).

-Call or stop by the industry association.  Chances are that here in Washington D.C. you'll find an association that covers just about any field imaginable.  Tell them you are interested in joining their profession or trade, and ask what material they have with which you could familiarize yourself with their field or, even better, if there is someone you could speak with for a few minutes (again, see above).

Whatever information you can gather will be of value either in deepening your knowledge or interest or passion or, alternatively, in helping you decide that what you thought might be right for you in fact isn't.  Warmer or colder, you only stand to benefit from the small steps outlined above.

*Keep in mind that, just like in the child's game, "You're getting colder" is almost as valuable a lue as "You're getting warmer."


Re-Energizing Yourself

I've previously suggested exercising, volunteering, and setting some short-term, achievable goals as important ways to re-energize.  Today, I want to write about a few others:

1) Give yourself a special treat!  If you're worried about your job/career prospects, chances are you've been scrimping.  You need to remember that you're worth treating well.  I'm not talking about a trip to Paris staying at the Ritz, but an upscale dinner, a new pair of shoes, a spa treatment or tickets to the Capitals game could give you a lift while at the same time reminding yourself that you're worthy of being pampered.

2) Read an uplifting, inspiring book, or attend an inspirational lecture/talk/sermon. I can heartily recommend books or CDs by Wayne Dyer ( ), Marianne Williamson (, Tony Robbins, Steve Covey, Norman Vincent Peale, or a book like: "50 Self-Help Classics" by Tom Butler-Bowden.  If you attend a house of worship, you may find your clergyman inspirational.  Or search the local "Events" section of your newspaper to learn about who will be speaking wehre and when, an on what.  I myself am scheduled to give a talk to the Forty+Club here in DC next month.

3) Connect with nature.  A walk in the woods, a visit to the zoo, a trip to the beach - even in mid-Winter these activities can be inspirational and re-energizing.  Relatedly, unless you have a deeply imbedded dislike of children, spending time with kids can be truly valuable as you see the power of optimism and a sense of possibility play out in these young minds. 

4) Immerse yourself in a creative endeavor - singing is my personal favorite, but drawing, doodling, a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, a game (athletic or video) - anything that will give you a sense of capability or even mastery will help energize you.

5) PLAY!  This weekend a huge snowstorm hit the Mid-Atlantic, and DC was buried in 2 feet of snow.  As the snow tapered off, people emerged into the streets and began throwing snowballs at each other (hundreds of people participated in a giant snowball melee in Dupont Circle).  Life needs to have moments of levity and silliness - they keep us young and.....ENERGIZED!


What to do When the Job Outlook is Grim

Ten per cent unemployment. Dozens of applicants for every job.  Superbly qualified people willing to take huge compensation cuts in order to regain employment.  In the face of these phenomena, it’s no wonder that countless numbers of Americans have either stopped looking for work altogether, or are so depressed by their presumed prospects that their job hunting efforts are half-hearted.  Half-hearted efforts aren’t going to fix the problem.  Even in the highly unlikely chance that a job should “fall into your lap” through networking or just plain dumb luck, you need to have an upbeat, energetic attitude and demeanor to guarantee that your performance will be top-notch, and that your job will last,.  Some of the things you can do to turn around your frame of mind:

1) Exercise!  Whether it’s training for a triathalon or just walking a couple of times around the block, physical movement generates a sense of momentum and possibility.  Part of this is chemical (the release of endorphins), and part of this is psychological (setting a goal and achieving it).  Of course you’re probably not going to feel like exercising when you’re down in the dumps, but try to push yourself through that resistance.  After all, you probably don’t feel like brushing your teeth a lot of the time, but you do it because you know you need to.  YOU NEED TO EXERCISE!

2) Volunteer!  Being unemployed or partially employed means many, many hours of free time.  Don’t waste them watching reality TV or the Shopping Channel.  Find a cause or organization you have a passion, or even some sympathy, for and call tor e-mail to determine what opportunities there are to be of service.  Volunteering gives you a place to go, something of a schedule to follow, the opportunity to interact with other people, and the chance to make a difference.  You may even make a connection that could lead to a job!  And again you’ll experience a sense of achievement .

3) Set some achievable short-term goals!  Perhaps the surest way to develop a sense of achievement is to set yourself some goals that can be attained relatively quickly and with relatively little effort (or perhaps even some enjoyment).  Clean out a closet.  Go through a box of old photographs.  Bake a cake.  Plant some radishes.  Compliment three people.  Knit a scarf.  Organize your tool kit.  The project itself is less important than identifying it, embarking on it, and completing it.  So make sure it’s a project that you can be reasonably confident of completing.


More on how to re-energize yourself next week.