The placebo element in Bach flower therapy

A review of seven published studies (Ernst 2010) states that “the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos”. The validity of these results could be questioned, because clinical trial design inevitably distorts the way the Bach system is used, for example by giving all subjects a standard mixture instead of letting them take part in selecting their own combination of remedies. But in any case, considering that the remedies do help a majority of the clients seen in real life practice, does it really matter if they are “just placebo”?

Maybe it is time to replace the term “placebo” because of its negative connotations. At worst, it conjures up an image of dishonest charlatans charging fat fees for giving sugar pills to neurotic women with imaginary ills. But research has shown that a placebo element is involved in every intervention, including orthodox medical and surgical treatments as well as complementary and alternative therapies, and for “real” diseases as well as functional symptoms. By stimulating the body’s own self-healing capacity, with no risk of side effects, the placebo effect can be a powerful force for good.

Bach flower treatment could mobilise the placebo effect in several ways:

  • Through deciding to explore a new therapy that is natural, gentle and pleasant to use, clients experience positive expectations and a sense of choice and control.
  • Talking in a relaxed setting with a practitioner who is empathic and non-judgmental is therapeutic.
  • Analysing specific negative emotions and attitudes according to the Bach system offers a new way of understanding problems.
  • Taking the remedies four times daily provides a reminder of the positive feelings they are designed to instill.

Image: White Chestnut, a remedy for worrying thoughts.

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Two churches

This morning I attended 11 a.m. Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland, as I have done almost every Sunday morning for seventeen years. Being a member of the choir, I watch the proceedings from up in the organ loft.

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Services at St Patrick’s are traditional, based on the same format that has been used for centuries in Catholic churches all over the world. In the choir we mostly sing classical four-part motets, in either English or Latin; today’s programme included Call to Remembrance (Farrant), O Lord Increase my Faith (Gibbons) and Ave Verum Corpus (Elgar). Singing such pieces requires concentration, but there is also time to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and the music, and the prayerful atmosphere of the setting.

After a brief lunch break I walked up the road to St Matthews in the City for a very different experience at the annual Blessing of the Animals service organised by the SPCA. The church was packed with people and animals, mostly dogs, some of them extremely active and vocal. The programme of hymns, songs from a school choir, poems and talks was mainly cheerful, though some aspects – lighting a candle for pets who have died, and prayers for animals who suffer abuse – were quite emotional.

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It is said there are many spiritual paths, all equally valid. Today’s two services could hardly have been more different, but both were uplifting.