A friend of mine once burned her arm on her stove. A large welt quickly arose, which blistered and slowly healed over several days. This might not sound remarkable – until I tell you that the stove was cold.
She thought she'd turned it on, and when she accidentally touched the metal, she expected to get burned. To her brain, that expectation mattered more than the fact that there was no heat at all.
This is an example of the "nocebo" effect, when a negative expectation delivers a negative result. It's the opposite of the placebo effect, when belief in a positive outcome creates a positive outcome.
The science writer David Robson has been exploring how these phenomena can help us in all sorts of ways.
He's recently brought his research together in a fascinating new book, "The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life," which I discussed with him in our Expert Interview podcast.
In this audio clip, David outlines the history and science behind the placebo effect, which first emerged in the world of medicine.
Robson's research shows that "expectation effects" – where expectation has a measurable and significant impact on effect – can happen in all areas of life.
"When we're doing exercise, when we're dieting... [expectation] can affect our sleep and how we deal with sleep loss, how we respond to stress – all of these things can be shaped by our expectations with really profound results," he says.
In Robson's book, there's a whole chapter on "de-stressing stress," where I was surprised to read that worrying about being anxious, which feels so modern, actually stretches back more than 100 years. Foreshadowing Bobby McFerrin's hit song urging us to "be happy," some people in the 19th century established Don't Worry Clubs. These were intended to combat unnecessary stress and generate the happiness that members believed was essential for good health.
"There was always this idea that stress and anxiety, however we experience them, are inherently bad for us... and what the recent research says is that's not necessarily true," David Robson says. "It actually depends on your attitudes and beliefs about stress and anxiety [as to] whether they harm you or whether they might actually sometimes be quite useful sources of energy."
Specifically, we can harness the "adaptive value of anxious feelings" – and then tap into their potential advantages.
"One of these advantages is when your heart is beating really quickly, it's pumping lots of blood to your brain," Robson explains. "It's carrying oxygen and glucose to your brain cells, which will sharpen your thinking. Similarly, even the stress hormones like cortisol can actually help to improve your mental acuity."
So rather than being worried about being worried, creating a downward spiral of negativity, we can reframe anxiety as helpful – with surprising results.
"When you shift [into] that mindset… what happens is that people do actually start to use the anxiety as a source of energy," Robson says. "And that can be seen in things like their performance on exams, their performance at public speaking."
Robson tells me that he uses this technique himself, and to good effect. He used to be more of a worrier.
"It's just so much easier for me to reconfigure my thoughts in that way, to just feel the feelings and to acknowledge them and to not try to deny them. But to also just recognize that they could be useful to me," he shares.
That debunks "don't worry." What about "be happy"? Robson has some thoughts.
He argues that the relentless pursuit of happiness creates "a negative expectation effect." If we labor under the belief that we should always try to be happy, when we feel anger, disappointment or frustration, we experience a sense of failure and even shame. It's another downward spiral.
His advice is to recast those negative emotions as useful messengers of something important.
Take feeling disappointment, for example. "Disappointment is really horrible to experience, but actually it's helping to tell you that the goal that you were trying to achieve really mattered, and that maybe you can learn something from your failure," David Robson suggests.
So just as with anxiety, we should sit with unexpected unhappiness, however uncomfortable, and think about how it might be beneficial.
"What the research shows is that people who do that, who have a more accepting attitude to negative feelings and who see meaning in their negative feelings, they actually show a lot better kind of mental health and physical health," Robson says.
It's refreshing to think that both stress and unhappiness can be good for the mind and body – if we change the way we deal with them, and change our expectations around them. It might not prevent us from burning ourselves on a cold oven, but it could make a positive difference to our mood and productivity in our everyday lives.
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