Learned helplessness: a behavior in which an organism forced to endure aversive, painful or otherwise unpleasant stimuli, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable. (Wikipedia.org)
The discovery of learned helplessness occurred accidentally by psychologists Marin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967. They described the effects of an inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance learning in an animal model. Dogs that were classically conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone made no attempts to escape even though simply jumping over the low barrier would provide them relief from the shock. They learned that the shocks were out of their control and thus learned that there was an expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks. This image demonstrates the research scenario.
Learned helplessness in humans can exacerbate several disorders like depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness and loneliness. An example could be a woman who feels shy in social situations eventually begins to feel that there is nothing she can do to overcome her symptoms and therefore stops engaging in social situations. Or an older adult with a medical condition requiring assistance from a partner begins to feel solely dependent on them for everything and eventually begins to feel they are unable to care for themselves at all. Both are examples of learned helplessness.
Undesirable event ---------> Perceived lack of control ---------> Generalized helpless behavior
In some cases we can get ourselves so worked up about our learned helplessness that we believe we can’t control or affect anything in our lives. In some cases this can be comical if not absurd.
What is most sad to me personally is to watch someone suffer endlessly when he or she in fact has the power to affect his or her health in a positive way. Yet, at the same time you will get whatever you are willing to tolerate. And so, if you believe you can’t change your situation then you are correct, you can’t because you have learned and sometimes chosen to believe that you are helpless. We are all also a product of the choices we make. The reality is that we DO have the ability to affect our situation; it is about choosing to do something about it and coming up with a plan, and sometimes having help to show us what to do.
My father has said to me many times, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” How true that is. However, if someone comes to you looking for help then the window of opportunity is there to help them identify the problem and a means to affect it. It is an art as a healthcare provider to discover how to teach a patient about cause and effect. Yet, when you do, that patient is able to recover and resolve their mechanical problem much more quickly and less dependent on healthcare services. Like the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Although I sympathize with pain, struggle and suffering, what I can offer is solutions to affect the painful condition. In the end, it is the responsibility of the patient to choose to put the plan into action. That is why I always have felt slightly uncomfortable with praise from patients. If I have done my job properly I only helped them listen to the problem and the situation to identify the means to resolve or affect it. The resolution is solely the patient’s doing, not mine. If I have done my job, I have “taught them to fish.”
Fortunately for me, as a physical therapist, one of the things we focus on is exercise. Exercise is wonderful for so many reasons, but specifically to the issue of learned helplessness, it helps stimulate the release of serotonin (a neurotransmitter in the brain strongly linked to feelings of well being and happiness). Exercise reduces the incidence of stress-related psychiatric disorders (like learned helplessness) and increases stress resistance by producing neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to make new neural pathways that affect behavior, thinking and emotions) via systems dependent on serotonin. 1 Every physical therapist should take advantage of exercise to improve the potential for change in every patient.
Another later research study done by Seligman on how to reverse the learned helplessness in the conditioned dogs, found that the dogs had to be physically picked up and put over the into the other side without the electrified grid. This had to be performed twice before the dogs would begin to exhibit the functional response of jumping on their own over the barrier to get away from the electrical grid. Healthcare providers may need to spend some time not only on education but a demonstration of positive change. 2 For example, performing a technique that results in pain relief may need to be performed a few times in order for the patient to learn the cause and effect in order to choose the correct response on their own in the future. For me that is why rarely if ever, is a one time visit ever enough to truly affect the situation or painful condition.
Remove learned helplessness with or without the help of a health care provider. We are a product of the choices we make, and it doesn’t have to be passivism. It is time to raise the standard of your own health and refuse accepting lack of health as normal.
Let us all take back control of our lives and health. It begins with me. It begins with you. It begins with us together.
Remove. Replace. Restore.
Remove learned helplessness. Remove acceptance of sickness as normal. Remove depression. Remove illness and immobility. Remove dependence.
Replace with acceptance that we do have the ability to change and affect our situation. Set the standard higher in regards to health and wellness. Sometimes we need help from a professional. Sometimes we need to have it demonstrated for us not once but sometimes twice in order to change. EXERCISE! Not only will we feel better but neural changes will occur also!
Restore independence. Restore control. Restore health and wellness.
Eat well. Move well. Sleep well. Thrive on.
1. Greenwood BN, Fleshner M. Exercise, stress resistance, and central serotonergic systems. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2011;39(3):140-149.
2. Seligman ME. Learned helplessness. Annu Rev Med. 1972;23:407-412.
Dr Carolyn Dolan DPT, Cert MDT, MSHN
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