Interest in the placebo effect in general medical care has undergone resurgence in recent years as emphasis on the mind/body connection has come to the center of medical science. When state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques are used to study the placebo effect, the involvement of the mind in the mind/body unity can now literally be seen.
When it comes to infertility in particular, studies have shown that the impact of mind/body interventions have contributed to higher pregnancy rates than the control group. Infertility is notorious for escalating stress to levels on a par with conditions that could be fatal such as heart disease. The use of hypnosis and other mind/body meditative skills disengages the “bodymind” from this stress and allows a person to enter an “infertility-free zone.” In this way, the physiology of stress is reversed and pregnancies are more apt to occur.
These days, women are clamoring for mind/body support—driven not only by what is in the press, but also by an intuitive “knowing” that since infertility is an ultimate mind/body phenomenon, limiting treatment solely to the body omits the impact of the mental frenzy on the mind/body unity. It thereby omits the opportunity to feel back in control of your life. Feeling out of control is universally reported to be the most difficult stress-inducing feeling to tolerate. Whether the infertility is diagnosable or not, learning and engaging in self-care with mind/body coping options brings you in as a participant and therefore goes a long way to reestablish a sense of being back in control—not of the fact that you’re in an infertility challenge, but of how you’re in it.
As you probably know, the placebo effect is what happens when some people who are given a pill with an inactive ingredient get better because they think they are taking a real medication. A variation on this phenomenon is when an injection of a medication is replaced with a shot of saline solution and improvement is maintained. There have even been studies where fake surgery has resulted in healing! The placebo effect can be so powerful that some medical studies find it is implicated in up to 70% of those whose health improves.
But central to the potential for a placebo-like response with infertility are two facts: 1. the role that positive belief plays in a positive outcome; and 2. the attunement between the doctor and patient regarding positive expectation. When the mind is involved in treatment, body chemistry can shift toward healing based upon belief, expectation and the rapport between the doctor and patient. The mind and body are in constant conversation with one another. Mind/body techniques directly impact what they “say.”
With infertility, the placebo effect is different than in standard research studies. It’s not the doctor who suggests that the treatment is real when it might not be. It is the patient herself who chooses to respect and experience the mind/body unity and voluntarily participates in self-care with mind/body stress reduction (non-pharmaceutical) techniques.
Investing what it takes to learn and utilize complementary techniques, along with support for mind/body interventions from your medical team, results in a vital partnership which goes a long way in reducing stress. Modern medicine can and does create miracles; but adding mind/body self-care coping options completes the circle. Your doctor’s skill pertains to your “seeds.” Your skill pertains to tending the “soil” in which those seeds will take root.
Mind/body techniques simmer down the frenzy of infertility. Keep in mind, however that there are other variables that play into conception: some could be biological and others emotional but outside of conscious awareness. If a pregnancy should prove impossible, it is unfair to blame yourself. Rather, turning to the use of mind/body interventions can serve you very well here, too. By minimizing stress, they make way for the clarity needed to proceed to parenthood by other venues. They also keep hope alive.
Here’s the takeaway: mind/body interventions can have a self-induced placebo effect. They cannot hurt and they do help by reducing the inordinate stress of infertility.
Helen Adrienne, LCSW, BCD, has been a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City since 1979. Although she is a general practitioner for women, men and couples, she has specialized in working with infertility patients. Helen is trained in mind/body therapy and clinical hypnosis. She conducts mind/body stress reduction classes at NYU Fertility Center and educates mental health professionals on the parameters of infertility at national conferences. She is the author of On Fertile Ground: Healing Infertility, a book written for infertility patients and those who want to understand them and also provides support and advice on The Baby Manifest-O Blog created especially for those navigating the challenges of infertility and is a contributing blogger at Psychology Today.