Hello, friends! This is a neat Q&A episode in which I answer two very interesting questions. The first looks at the ethical considerations of placebo effects specifically relating to health supplements that may be a scam, while the second talks about coping with grief for a career that has been cut short.
I’m a psych student and I genuinely enjoy your podcast and all the helpful and insightful advice you have given! I recently encountered a dilemma and I really hope to hear about your suggestions.
I understand how powerful the effect of placebo could be on human brain and body and its possibility to stimulate healing. A friend of my grandma’s recently recommended her a supplement of which the friend guaranteed to have a specific magical effect on the body. Upon looking into the ingredients and my internet search for the buyers reviews, this supplement does not actually have any meaningful benefits to the body, however since it’s extracted from a natural edible source, it doesn’t pose any health risks either. Due to hours of conversations with the friend and their robust friendship, my grandma has been brainwashed into believing that the supplement will make her physical symptoms better. Her mood has been significantly better and she seems generally happier. I have no problem buying the supplement even though it is pricey and the ingredients are definitely not worth the price, but there is no current alternative supplement I can offer. The problem is that I struggle between 1) telling my grandma that this product is a scam and making her realize the reality that there’s no magical cure to her physiological symptoms; or 2) being satisfied that the supplement is actually having a positive effect on her by giving her hope and the positivity she needs however watching her get deceived.
I appreciate any advice and I’m sincerely grateful for all the knowledge you have shared.
This is an interesting question. I think that placebo effects are a very fascinating topic. There are some indications that certain research supported psychological approaches might even rely on some benefit from placebo/expectations. In my opinion, as long as it’s not doing harm there’s nothing wrong with it. However, you really need to think about what it means to do harm. For instance, is this increase in subjective wellness going to stop the person from engaging with treatments that would actually make a medical difference? That’s really where the concern is here in this case.
If the cost isn’t prohibitive and there is some sort of benefit that she feels, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s unfortunate in a broad sense that older people are targeted for things like this. It’s predatory, but we are past that in this case. She already believes and thinks it’s helping. In a very real way it may be helping, even if that help is not based in actual chemical reactions of the substance used. The brain is an extremely powerful thing. If you tell someone you are giving them pain killer when you do, you see a measurable increase in pain reduction vs if you don’t tell them. People can also have psychogenic illnesses, which are very real physical symptoms that are simply not for a physical reason.
If we are talking about something like Alzheimer’s disease here, I think that we need to be honest about quality of life and the progression of the illness. I have no idea what the particular issue is with your grandma, but let’s use Alzheimer’s as a proxy. Alzheimer’s has no known cure and inevitably progresses to severe impairment if the person lives long enough. If the person is able to have some comfort and even increase in wellness due to some snake oil product, then I say who are we to rob them of that. As long as it isn’t bankrupting them or causing them other harm. At a certain point, the illness would cross into the phase where they won’t remember what they are taking and it would become a moot point. But for now, if it makes them feel in control and dignified, I say it’s all good.
BIG caveat here. Make sure you talk to her doctor about it. Sometimes something seems benign in our online research, but there are particular complications or interactions that you wouldn’t find through google searching. Be sure to have this exact conversation with her doctor so that they can advise you about whether there is a potential harm here.
So really good question. Obviously each individual situation is different, so please don’t take my advice here as a blanket statement. Always consult with your doctor before changing things and don’t underestimate the power of supplements. Not in terms of their advertised benefits, but in terms of how they can actually impact you, sometimes in negative ways depending on your baseline.
I’m in the military and recently was found unfit for duty and am being medically retired. I had a goal of reaching 20 years and I didn’t. I found that when I received the news I basically started grieving. Is that something that is normal to do when you’ve been in a career for a while? How do you move on?
Thank you for your question. I don’t blame you at all for having a hard time about this. When you have an expectation for a certain career landmark and you don’t have the opportunity to get there despite all of the hard work and sacrifices that you have made for it… that’s incredibly tough. I hear a lot of self-awareness in your question, so I suspect you kind of already know the answer. YES. It is totally normal to have grief when you have to leave a career behind.
I think a lot of people don’t realize that grief isn’t only about literal death of a person. You can go through a grieving process when you endure any kind of loss. This could be the loss of a person, the loss of the relationship you had with a person, the expectation of a certain future, a career, etc. In a very real way, the picture of the life you thought you would have has to die. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be a great life, but it will be a different one. You don’t get to have that previously anticipated life anymore. And that hurts.
Just as a reminder, the typical stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are heavily criticized since it’s super clear that grief is not a predictable step-wise progression. It can happen in many different ways. There are not many theoretical underpinnings for this model. However, it’s a helpful starting place and helps to normalize the experience.
When you got the news, you may have felt like it was not real. Like there was a mistake or that you weren’t actually understanding what happened. You have had a strong angry reaction and tried to figure out a way to make your previous expectation come true. These are all things that are totally normal to experience. I imagine that when you understood this to be true, you started to play out the life you thought you would have and how that compares to the life you could potentially have now. It would be normal to not see that in a very positive light. Likely, you are focusing more on the missed opportunities. You also probably didn’t prepare for this. So you may not have a clear idea of what your life will look like now because you never intended on stopping short of the goal you set for yourself.
It will take time for these feelings to settle and for some form of acceptance to set in. You don’t have to be happy about it. I want to be clear about that. You can be sad about it. Even when you feel like you have “moved on” that doesn’t mean that you feel great about the fact that you were medically retired. Feel what you feel and at the same time recognize that you get to have another version of your life that can be amazing as well.
When it comes to what you can do to move on, I think that time is, unfortunately, going to be a part of it. We never ever want to hear that. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, a breakup, or a missed opportunity, it really sucks to hear that it will take time to start feeling better, but it does. You don’t have to do things perfectly during that time. You just need to try to take the best care of yourself as possible and let your psyche’s automatic processes do their work. I also think that creating something is always helpful to balance the scales that have been offset from the loss that you experienced. Creation is broad and can be a new project, a hobby, a new fulfilling relationship, a different form of work, etc. Cultivating and bringing something new into the world is a great active way to cope with the icky feelings that can come from loss.
If you need help, please get some. There is absolutely nothing wrong with struggling with this. If you need to get some help from a therapist or coach of some kind, allow yourself to do that. This will be easier to live through if you have support. Family and friends are great, but they can’t be that external source of support for you. Get help if you need it.
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