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Vaccine side effects might be caused by anxiety, rather than the jab itself – but that doesn't mean they're not real

Image: Pexels
Image: Pexels

According to a new study, 76% of common reactions to the Covid vaccines can be attributed to the placebo effect, with symptoms stemming from other causes like anxiety. As a result, the scientists suggest that some of the most common mild side effects, including headaches and fatigue, should be re-labelled as “nocebo effects” rather than physical side effects.

The term may sound dismissive, but a nocebo effect simply means that patients are more likely to experience an adverse effect if they expect an adverse effect or are worried about the potential side effects. But with two years of pure pandemic panic, how could we not expect something bad to happen?

We're swamped with sensational headlines that document alarming physical reactions to both Covid and the vaccine. We've been let down time and time again with broken promises and rising cases every time we dare to feel optimistic about the future. It seems natural that we venture into the vaccine programme with trepidation.

To begin to address the nocebo side effects, we would need to reframe the experience of receiving a Covid jab altogether. At the moment, headache and fatigue is listed on the vaccine leaflet as well as on the NHS website as the most common side effects of the Covid jabs, but in doing so, they've created a catch 22. Providing this information will intensify the nocebo side effects of headache and fatigue, as people will be more likely to expect them and will be looking out for signs of them.

“Telling patients that the intervention they are taking has side-effects that are similar to placebo treatments for the condition in randomised controlled trials actually reduces anxiety and makes patients take a moment to consider the side-effect,” said Ted Kaptchuk, professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard medical school, and one of the senior authors on the study. “But we need more research.”

In other words, if the NHS website and leaflet explained that some side effects might be caused by the nocebo effect, it might help to prevent them. This is important because even though the cause might be different than we thought, nocebo effects are still real, and they can still be serious.

There's a tendency for our society to only deem illness as “real” when it has a physical, verifiable cause, and headlines and social media posts are already misinterpreting the findings to state that the vaccine doesn't have any real side effects. But it does. People get headaches and feel fatigued. The cause is just different than we originally thought.

Ultimately, the reason behind someone's suffering should not change our perceived severity of it. You might have a headache because you have a physical condition that can be tested for, or because you have a mental health condition, which cannot be proven in a lab – but the bottom line is you still have a headache. Let's try and remember that mental illness can manifest in physical pain, and if it does, it's no less real.

This article was originally published Glamour UK.

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