I recently came across an interesting concept that explains a lot about the mindset of a person living with chronic illness.
It goes like this: When a person or an animal is repeatedly subjected to a terrible situation that they think they can’t escape or control, they eventually stop trying, even if escape becomes possible.
This psychological phenomenon is called learned helplessness, and when it comes to living with chronic illness, it answers a lot of questions.
Martin Seligman and his dogs:
It all started back in 1967 when a psychologist named Martin Seligman first discover the concept of learned helplessness in a famous experiment with dogs.
He placed his dogs into two groups. One group of dogs were subjected to random electric shocks immediately following an audible tone. There was nothing they could do to stop it.
They were classically conditioned to expect the shock any time they tone. The other group of dogs were not conditioned in this way. They were the control group.
Seligman placed both groups of dogs into a special box with two compartments separated by a wall the dogs could easily jump over. One side of the box was safe, the other side, where Seligman put the dogs, was electrified and randomly shocked the dogs.
All they had to do to escape, was to jump over the wall to safety.The dogs that had not been conditioned to endure electric shocks jumped over the wall right away.
But the dogs that had previously learned that there was nothing they could do, didn’t even try to escape. They just laid down and endured the pain because they had previously learned the shocks were random and outside their control.
They had learned helplessness and believed their situation to be hopeless – they couldn’t even see the opportunity for escape when it was presented.
Learned Helplessness and Chronic Illness:
When you live with a chronic illness, it can feel you’re trapped in a kind of living hell with no escape or any sort of control over your situation.
It certainly did for me. I suffer from a rare inner ear disorder called Meniere's disease that causes violent attacks of hearing loss, ear pressure, tinnitus, and vertigo, where it feels like the room is spinning.
It's a complicated, terrible condition and no two people respond to any given treatment in the exact same way. It’s entirely possible that a Meniere’s sufferer can try literally a dozen treatments, and have nothing work the way they wanted it to.
Who wouldn’t feel powerless that?
It doesn’t help that many doctors treat their patients in a way that inspires this kind of hopelessness.
It’s easy to see how a concept like learned helplessness applies here.
A chronic illness sufferer can simply give up, much like Seligman’s dogs, and feel entirely hopeless, when in fact, there may be a great number of options and opportunities available to them.
Even when there is no cure, or treatment left to try, opportunities abound. It could be as simple as making the most of a good day, or spending time doing something you want to do, despite the consequences.
There is a huge difference between accepting your condition and giving up.
The former allows for hope and action, the latter for depression and despair.
Fortunately, once you understand that the concept of learned helplessness is at play, you can do something about it.
According to Seligman, the opposite of learned helplessness is learned optimism.
In other words, pessimists who have learned helplessness, can learn to be optimists by changing the way they think about adversity.
Seligman explains that you must first understand the ABC model of Adversity, created by psychologist Albert Ellis, in order to learn optimism.
(A) is for Adversity and represents the event that has occurred.
(The chronic illness diagnosis.)
(B) is for Belief or how we interpret the adversity and what we decide that it means.
(There is nothing I can do to improve.)
(C) is for Consequences – the feelings and actions that result from our belief.
(Hopelessness, anger, depression, despair, and inaction.)
To counteract our understanding of a given adversity, Seligman adds a D and E to the model.
(D) is for disputation or generating counter-evidence to any negative beliefs, causes, or implications.
(There are treatments I haven’t tried. I didn’t choose to have this condition, but I can still make decisions. I am not powerless.)
(E) stands for Energization or the practice of celebrating the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment and control that comes from dispelling negative beliefs.
(Practicing gratitude, trying a new treatment, seizing the moment on a good day, appreciating minor accomplishments.)
Learned helplessness explains a lot more than the mindset of a person with chronic illness. But it provides an interesting window into the mind of someone living with difficult circumstances.
By simply understanding the concept, you can start to recognize the thought patterns as they occur and work to change them for the better.
It takes time and practice for this to be effective, but you can escape the pitfalls of learned helplessness and take back your sense of control in an otherwise terrible situation.
Your chronic illness may be difficult to manage, but there is always hope. There is always some new action to take or new treatment you can try.
You didn’t choose to be sick, but you're also never powerless.
You have far more control over your life than you may have realized.
So, when you’re feeling hopeless, ask yourself, “Is there truly nothing I can do to improve my situation in some small but meaningful way? Or have I just learned helplessness?”