What did you learn today, John?

I learnt to be helpless.

It might come as a surprise to discover that helplessness can be learnt. It was certainly an accidental discovery by the father of the branch of psychology called Positive Psychology (something that I regularly study) Martin Seligman and his associate psychologist, Steven F Maier. In an experiment involving dogs, Seligman and Maier discovered that the dogs adopted a helpless response when conditioned to expect an electric shock after hearing a noise. In an experiment where the dogs received an electric shock on one side of the box that they were kept in but not on the other side that they could reach, the dogs made no attempt to move to the other side and avoid the shock. They had, in effect, learnt that they were in a helpless situation – with no chance of changing the outcome. Incidentally, all the dogs had to do was jump over a small barrier to reach the non-electrified side. But they didn’t.

This experiment has been repeated countless times with animals and with humans. In a famous human experiment two groups of people were subjected to a loud noise that could only be turned off by working out the pattern of switches to press on the panel before them. Unbeknown to this group, they couldn’t turn the loud noise off no matter what sequence they tried whereas in the case of the second group, a simple sequence of button pressing was all that it took to silence the loud noise. In stage two of the experiment, each of the two groups were put into a new room, again with a loud noise. The group who had been unable to silence the loud noise the first time never bothered to try to silence the loud noise this time whereas the group who had silenced it the first time immediately set out to silence it this time. Simply, the first group had learnt helplessness.

There are many implications from these findings for not only does learnt helplessness lead to, literally, a giving up in the circumstance that we find ourselves in but it’s a transferable condition meaning that other situations that we face, completely unconnected to the one we just faced, is met with a learnt helplessness response. I failed last time there so I’ll fail this time here.

How does this happen?
The principal reason this occurs is because the emotional part of the brain: the limbic system receives the sensory information first, long before the cognitive part of the mind (prefrontal cortex, in particular) gets a look in. The limbic system is irrational, emotional and much more powerful than the rational, logical and weaker prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is programmed to freeze, flight or fight and is very, very quick to form irrational judgements. Helplessness is not a cognitively deduced decision for it is too heavily tainted with the weight of emotion. Given uncontrolled judgement, the limbic system will conclude the situation is helpless and the freeze, flight or fight response will be initiated. Notice, as I’ve said many times in my blog, it’s freeze, flight or fight. Learned helplessness shows no flight or fight response in my opinion. Rather, a modified freeze response. We simply don’t know what to do and freezein our response waiting our inevitable demise.

What can we do about it?
Thank goodness psychology today teaches us the efficacy of the mind. In other words, we can transform our thinking: literally, rewire our minds to think and behave differently. But how?
It requires us to learn to control the limbic system. Left to run wild, the limbic system will run us ragged with irrational, emotional responses.

There are many powerful techniques that have been scientifically proven to work. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one such therapy that utilises the proven techniques. I have my version of psychiatrist Jeffery Schwartz’s 4-stage process that I call the 4CC’s. It involves regaining control of the limbic response so that the rational mind can make decisions and move us forward in an altogether more helpful way. It works for overcoming everything from losing our temper to overcoming obsessive compulsive disorders, commonly known as OCD.

If you’ve ever found yourself saying, why did I do that? (Or keep doing that?) Or, why did I say that?, then there will be something there to help you understand what’s going on and how you can change your response. Do contact me for a free, informal 15-minute chat using the form in this blog post.

The learnt helplessness can be changed to learnt helpfulness by a different way of thinking: not with rose-coloured glasses but, as Shawn Achor writes in The Happiness Advantage, through rose-tinted glasses. Rose-tinted glasses don’t naïvely see the world, as a bundle of joy wherever we look but see the world filtered with the rose-tint of positivity and belief. Research after research concludes that looking for solutions, maintaining a can do attitude and a determination to succeed leads to greater health, contentment and success in an abundance of ways. What’s needed is a controlling of the limbic system resulting in a rewiring of the mind. And the good news is that this doesn’t take months but can be immediate or in just few coaching/therapy sessions. Want to know more? Contact me.

Today, I biked to my favourite coffee shop in town only to find out that I’d left my wallet at home. I had no means of buying my favourite drink: a cappuccino . How might you have responded to this situation? You might be interested to know that I’m writing this blog post in said coffee shop.

What did you learn today?