Imagine a little box with a metal plate on the bottom, through which an electric shock can be delivered. You put a mouse in that box and shock him every so often. Because the electric jolt is painful, he tries to get away by running from one side of the box to the other, then back to the center, searching for a safe place. But no matter where he goes, he gets zapped. So soon, he stops trying. He just stands there and takes it. You have just taught him to be helpless.
Several decades ago, Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, began researching this phenomenon, known as “learned helplessness.” His findings, which have been confirmed by many studies, demonstrated that when people believe they have no control over their situation, they tend to give up. Rather than fighting to regain control, or trying a new path, idea, concept, or treatment, they just give up. They have learned to be helpless.
Yoga Mudra For Lower Back Pain Learned Helplessness and Resiliency Photo Gallery
When pain patients developed learned helplessness, they strongly doubt there is any hope for them “Don’t bother trying to get better,” they tell themselves. “There’s no point.” So they stop doing their exercises, give up on their programs, and otherwise surrender to their situations. Just about every week, at least one of my patients tells me he can’t engage in some activity, or something won’t work, because of his pain. You, too, may feel that way. But just because your shoulder hurt the last five times you tried to play catch with your kids doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to do it, especially if this activity is really important to you. Perhaps your treatment team can delve deeper into the ball-tossing mechanics, and identify certain muscles that aren’t performing quite right at the moment. If a safe and reasonable plan can be developed to help you play catch, you need to be open to that opportunity and give it a chance. This doesn’t mean you’ll be throwing 90 mile per hour fastballs, but you can still find plenty of satisfaction in throwing the ball around with your kids.
Learned helplessness is the opposite of resiliency, the ability to withstand difficulties, whether physical or emotional. Instead of feeling helpless, the resilient person understands that this is a “season” to get through. He’s open to doubling down on what he’s been doing, or trying new approaches, in the belief that things will get better, sooner or later. Resilience is problem solving and adapting to achieve positive change and meaningful results. It’s a mindset, a willingness to work through problems, instead of just giving up.
Like helplessness, resilience can also be learned. It increases as you meet and overcome challenges, learn to communicate with others effectively, develop good self-management skills, and discover more about yourself and life in general. Resilience can be strengthened by having close family relationships and friendships, being willing to seek help when needed, offering help to others when they are in need, and learning to manage strong feelings and impulses. It increases when you develop healthy tools for dealing with stress, and stay away from alcohol and drug abuse, and other problem behaviors. The ability to find positive meaning in your life in spite of hardships is also important to resilience. And you must firmly believe that you are not a helpless victim of circumstance. Those who are resilient refuse to remain stuck in a winter of pain.
Becoming more resilient doesn’t mean you’ll never be worried, fearful, or otherwise distressed. But it does mean that you’ll be able to keep these emotions in check and forge ahead through the difficult times. Embrace these tools for building resiliency:
• Find meaning in adversity—Instead of wondering why is life is giving you problems, be thankful you have the opportunity to explore your inner self and become stronger as you learn new ways to connect with yourself, others, and life itself.
• Build optimism—Choose to be optimistic. You can do this by paying attention to your thoughts, then focusing on those that are positive and hopeful. Concentrate on the good things that have happened to you, the ways you’ve helped others, and the many things you’re looking forward to. When you think about the wonderful things to come, imagine yourself actually engaged in them, as if they are happening right now.
• Accept change—Life is a continuous arc of change; no one leaves it the way they came in. Embrace these changes, even if they seem unfortunate at the moment, as they are opportunities for exploration and growth.
• Move toward your goals—Always keep your eye on the big picture, on the wonderful goals you have for yourself, rather than on today’s problems.
• Connect with positive people—Feelings are contagious, so connecting with people who are happy, compassionate, optimistic, and positive will lift your mood and improve your health.