I think almost everyone reading this is deeply familiar with the human stress response, memorably coined by Harvard professor Walter Cannon as the “fight or flight” response (in recent years “freeze” has been added as well).

We’ve all experienced this ancient survival mechanism —in essence a hormonal and neurochemical cascade — that gets switched on when your brain perceives a threat. Little to none of it is conscious; you simply feel it. It takes place deep in the limbic system, where things like sleep and hunger reside. And it works better that way; it has helped us stay alive in situations of extreme duress and danger without the dubious intervention of executive function.

Less understood, though, is the counterbalancing relaxation response. Within seconds of perceiving the threat to recede, the body relaxes, and stress hormones — mainly cortisol — drop. It’s only in this more relaxed state that the body’s repair mechanisms can operate.

Placebos can be incredibly effective because taking them will often switch off the stress response, and initiate the relaxation response. This is the holy grail of self-repair.

What we think, and how we feel, can clearly affect how our body responds to stress.

Placebos are real, and we can use them to our advantage.

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