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Taking a placebo can cure exam anxiety even if you know the pills don’t contain any drugs

Taking a placebo can cure exam anxiety even if you KNOW the pills don’t contain any drugs, study finds

  • German scientists looked at 58 university students sitting end of term exams
  • Half were given placebo for fortnight and told there was no active substances 
  • Despite knowing pills were empty, students had reduced anxiety about the test

Taking a placebo can reduce exam anxiety – even if the taker knows the pills do not contain anything, research suggests. 

Scientists found giving university students two empty tablets a day for a fortnight before an exam alleviated their worries about the test. 

It worked despite the participants knowing the pills had no active substance to treat anxiety.

A wealth of studies dating back decades have shown placebos to make people feel better.

Taking a placebo can reduce exam anxiety even if the taker knows the pills are empty, research suggests

But they were thought to only work if the patient believes they are taking effective medication.

Now researchers believe so-called open label placebos (OLPs) could be used to treat various ailments. 

For their study, the team from the Berlin Medical School looked at a group of 58 students who were approaching their end of term exams. 


A placebo is anything that seems to be a ‘real’ medical treatment but is not, whether that be a sugar pill or saline injection.

What all placebos have in common is they do not contain an active substance that boosts a person’s health.

Placebos are used in studies to help scientists understand the effect of a new treatment on a given condition.

For example, in a study investigating a cholesterol-lowering drug, some would be given a placebo – often without knowing it – to compare the medication versus the sugar pill.

This allows them to check the treatment’s effectiveness and any side effects.

A placebo effect occurs when a person improves, or experiences side effects, after having nothing more than a sugar pill.

Studies show placebos can ease depression, pain, insomnia and IBS.

How placebos work is unclear but is thought to relate to the relationship between the body and the mind. 

Some argue this is all in the mind but other studies show measureable physical changes after taking a placebo, such as a rise in hormones that ease depression.

Source: WebMD 

In the two weeks before they sat the test the volunteers were split into two groups.  

Before starting the course of treatment, and again at the end, participants completed questionnaires.

Scientists measured their level of test anxiety, self-management skills, coping mechanisms and belief in their ability to succeed.

The first group took the pills labelled as OLPs twice a day and were told that they contained no active ingredients. The second group was given no medication.  

Participants who took OLPs became less anxious and better at managing their time, whereas there were no changes in the control group.

The researchers don’t know why students’ anxiety decreased even when they were aware they were taking inert substances.

But they note that volunteers were told before the study that placebo effects could be ‘powerful’ and that the body may respond automatically.

They speculate that knowing the placebo might work was enough to give them confidence and reduce their fears about the test. 

Lead author Michael Schaefer said the results were promising but noted that the sample size of the study was small.

On whether OLPs could treat minor medical conditions he said: ‘I think open-label placebos may offer a possibility to prescribe placebos without these issues.’  

The study comes on the back of research that showed placebos were effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and migraines. 


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