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May 7, 2015

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Worry about worrying

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Whether you like it or not, you are living in an age of political anxiety. Don’t just sit there, worry.

To make it easy for you, I’ll provide a list of things to worry about. If worrying about them causes them to happen or makes you sick, despairing and even suicidal, then you’re experiencing what doctors call the “nocebo effect.”

Increasingly, sociologists and some historians are using the nocebo effect to explain instances of national psychogenic illness, when whole countries become anxious and depressed by untrue and harmful information.

In his recent book, “Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations,” Chris Berdik writes about a plague of compulsive dancing that hit Strasbourg during the summer of 1518. People were dancing themselves to death in the city’s summer heat.

Berdik relates that Strasbourg physicians wanted to bleed the dancers, but city fathers prescribed more music, which worsened the epidemic. People believed they’d catch the deadly dancing bug, and they did — an example of the nocebo effect, in which peoples’ expectations cause harm.

In a placebo effect, according to medical definition, a medication with no known therapeutic value is administered to a patient, and the patient’s symptoms improve. The patient believes and expects that the treatment is going to work, so it does.

A nocebo effect occurs when a dummy medication taken by a patient is associated with harmful effects due to negative expectations or the psychological condition of the patient.

My thesis here is that if we as a nation worry enough about what ails us — or what we’re told ails us — we’ll do ourselves damage. Indeed, that may be what is tearing Congress apart and is threatening the larger economic well-being of the nation.

Here are seven things that may be having a nocebo effect on our national psyche:

1. Our schools are failing to produce the kinds of math and science graduates that will keep us competitive against the Chinese.

2. Our deficit is out of control and will destroy all of us.

3. Our values have been suborned by alien cultures and religions.

4. Our infrastructure is a goner and we’ll never be able to fix it.

5. Our political system is irreparably broken, leading to anarchy and lawlessness.

6. The Republicans will control the U.S. House of Representatives forever, the Democrats will control the White House forever and the country will sink into chaos.

7. Invasive species like the Burmese pythons that are living large in Florida, the Asian carp that are making their way up the Chicago River to the Great Lakes and, of course, global climate change — after which, Armageddon.

As any debtor will tell you, worrying too much creates a kind of toxic syndrome of thought in which solutions are crowded out by anxieties, leading to more disasters: the nocebo effect.

The atmosphere in Washington these days is not only poisonous, it’s also despairing. Members of Congress are sure nothing good is going to happen. They believe the old military oxymoron that a city has to be destroyed to be saved will apply to the economy, which will have to go into freefall to be saved.

That’s the nocebo effect at work. Would anyone like to dance?

Llewellyn King is host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, originating from WHUT in Washington, D.C.

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  1. Mr. King, I suggest you read the Professor's article above. He's got it right. You got it wrong, albeit at least yours is funnier.


  2. Llewellyn King's essay rings true for me. The nocebo effect sounds like another "term" for a
    self-fulfilling phophesy. It is energy-sapping, negative thinking.

    Richard Grossman's column, "Following ideology off the cliff" (in today's L.V. Sun) gives an example of Repulican ideological intransigence that almost prevented them from making the very trivial concession of allowing a slight increase to the maximum income tax rate for only .07% of the wealthiest Americans.

    Their pessimistic, simplistic, unsupported premise is that only lower taxes can save our economy. That many of them would sign a pledge not to raise taxes, not to be open to various options, defeats the problem-solving process.

    Note: I will be without computer access for a few days.