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Placebos, Documentaries, & Self-Control

By: Michael Blankenship |

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Greetings from LA and Oahu!

This week we’re talking about why placebos work even when we know they’re placebos and how breathing can help you control your emotions. We also share 12 eye-opening documentaries that are worth checking out, ask you a question about Covid-19, and challenge you to buy a houseplant. 

Enjoy!

From The Tribe

Reply to this week’s question and we’ll include our favorite responses in next week’s newsletter:

How has Covid-19 impacted you (for better or worse) and what have you learned from it? 

Last week we asked… 

What’s a difficult experience that you overcame? And what was one lesson you learned through the recovery process?

Here were some of our favorite answers…

“The people that are meant for you, they will help you grow, mature, and become the best version of yourself, and you will do the same for them. The ones who rejected you were stepping stones for you to aim higher in life.” – Stephen A.

“Building my business was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it’s challenged me to become a better person and I’ve learned that there’s always risk, no matter what you do.” – Kathy T. 

“After my dad passed away, I felt really lost. But I’ve since learned that while loss is painful, there’s also a lot of beauty in the memories we made together.” – Seth A.

Placebos

A 2016 Harvard Health article starts with this question: “If your doctor told you that she was giving you a placebo and that it would help you, would you believe her?”

Placebos, after all, are nothing more than sugar pills with grand claims attached to them, but with no physiological impact (unless mental is physiological). So it seems that revealing the truth of a placebo would make us see through the proverbial curtain and undo what impact the placebo had had before we knew its secret.

But that’s not the case — in fact, placebos can help even when we know it’s a placebo. 

Check out the results of this study by Dr. Ted J. Kaptchuk, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard-wide Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston:

“In one study, Kaptchuk looked at people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common condition that causes abdominal cramping and diarrhea or constipation that can be debilitating for many. Half of the study volunteers were told they were getting an “open-label” placebo and the others got nothing at all. He found that there was a dramatic and significant improvement in the placebo group’s IBS symptoms, even though they were explicitly told they were getting a ‘sugar pill’ without any active medication.”

There is, of course, an important caveat to the effectiveness of placebos…

“Kaptchuk says placebos won’t work for every medical situation—for example, they can’t lower cholesterol or cure cancer. But they can work for conditions that are defined by ‘self-observation’ symptoms like pain, nausea, or fatigue.”

The mind is powerful. And when we think that our symptoms are going to improve, they often do. More surprisingly, though, this research indicates that humans are able to believe something to their benefit, even when they know their belief doesn’t make any logical sense — it’s like getting emotionally attached to the characters and story on the TV screen while simultaneously ignoring that it’s really just a bunch of flashing pixels.

Why’s that important? 

Because it means that our beliefs are powerful and that — whether logical or not — they impact us positively or negatively. So we all would do well to keep a close eye on the things that we choose to believe and how they make us feel, ultimately asking ourselves, does this belief benefit me and does it make me a better person?

Daring Documentaries

Good documentaries combine the insight (albeit slightly diluted) of a nonfiction book with the attention-grabbing magic of the television screen — that’s why we love ‘em. 

But not all documentaries are created equal. 

And lest you spend your valuable time watching something that’s unworthy of your time, check out this awesome list of 12 “eye-opening documentaries” from Bustle.

Breath For Self-Control

On episode 293 of the Jocko Podcast, mixed martial artist, Rickson Gracie, talks about how controlled breathing has impacted his ability to win fights and control his emotions during times of high-stress. 

“Breathing became my best friend to control my emotions, to keep my heart-rate [in a good place] for performance, to recoup, to control panic, to become calm, to strategize… everything comes from this capacity to control yourself by breathing.”

“If you get tired and you don’t know how to hyperventilate, your mind starts to fade and you make poor decisions, you get completely off your game, because there’s not enough oxygen for the brain.”

Here’s a five-minute YouTube clip of this part of their conversation. 

Fortunately, controlled breathing is something that all of us can learn and benefit from — Gracie compares breath training to muscular conditioning… 

“It’s like your biceps, if you don’t train in the breathing system, you’re going to work with 40% less ability to refresh yourself or bring yourself to the next level.”

But the benefits of consciously controlling our breath go beyond winning fights. When we focus on our breath, research suggests that “several brain regions linked to emotion, attention, and body awareness are activated.” Additionally, we can regulate our response to stress by breathing slowly (lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, creates a sense of calm) or by breathing quickly (raises blood pressure and heart rate, heightens adrenaline and focus).

If you want to feel the effects of controlled breathing for yourself, then check out these 10 breathing patterns from Healthline and give them a try. You might even integrate some of these exercises into key parts of your day.

This Week’s Photo

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

“Locals play soccer on a dusty pitch in Soweto, South Africa, on September 15, 2021.” via The Atlantic

This Week’s Riddle

Here’s this week’s riddle — the answer is at the bottom of the email!

I can be crushed to pieces, but only if I am given away first, I can be clogged and attacked, but that’s usually my own doing. No matter how many problems I have, you wouldn’t dare let me go. What am I?

Extra Stuff

Here are some other awesome articles that caught our attention this week…

This Week’s Challenge

Buy a plant. There are lessons to be learned (and satisfaction to be gained) in taking care of a plant and watching it grow — something that requires far more patience than most things in our lives. It’s a reminder that good and beautiful things take time and that consistency and patience are important qualities. Here’s a list of 7 indoor plants that are easy to care for (good for beginners).

Until next week, 

Mike & Alec

Riddle Answer: A heart

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