I recently came across an interesting concept that explains a lot about the mindset of a person living with chronic illness like Meniere’s disease.

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 explains quite a lot.

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 an incurable chronic illness like Meniere’s disease, it can feel you’re trapped in a kind of living hell with no escape or any sort of control over your situation.

Meniere’s disease is a complicated condition and no two people respond to any given treatment in the exact same way. It’s entirely possible that Meniere’s sufferer can try literally a dozen treatments, and have nothing work the way they wanted it to.

Who wouldn’t feel powerless in a situation like that?

It certainly 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 Meniere’s patient can simply give up, like Seligman’s dogs, and feel entirely hopeless, when in fact, there may be a great number of options available to them.

It’s important understand that this is happening, and to recognize it for what it actually is.

Because there is a difference between accepting your condition and giving up. The former allows for hope and action, the latter for depression and despair.

Learned Optimism:

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 can use the ABC model of Adversity, created by psychologist Albert Ellis, to learn optimism.

(A) is for Adversity and represents the event that has occurred.

(The Meniere’s disease 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.)

Seligman, however, 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 Meniere’s, but I can still make decisions. I am not powerless.)

(E) which stands for Energization or the practice of celebrating the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment and control that comes from dispelling negative beliefs.

(Gratitude, enjoying our best days, appreciating minor accomplishments.)

Conclusion:

It takes time and practice for this to be effective, but by following this structured way of thinking, you can escape the pitfalls of learned helplessness and take back your sense of control in an otherwise terrible situation.

Meniere’s disease may be difficult, but there is always hope.  There is always some new action to take or new treatment you can try.

You didn’t choose to have Meniere’s disease, but you are 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?”

  1. I find this very interesting. As I age and my disease progresses, I feel I have lost my dreams and desire to plan…..I’ve allowed myself to get dependent. I’m going to have to think on these things! Thanks Glenn!

  2. Thank you for sharing this article Glenn. Once I got through reading about Seligman’s experiment and how he went about it (very sad & disgusted that he treated his dogs this way) I realized that in the past 35 years living with MD, I fall under his category of (D &E). I learned early on that I would not let this disease make me a victim or a prisoner in my home. I had to work and raise 2 children so my choice was to fight MD with everything available, including a good Otologist. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my days of not realizing some of my dreams (like Ms. King says), but you pull up your boot straps and make new dreams. You have to keep looking for the things that you can do.
    Thanks for all your hard work and research. You give us hope!

  3. Ater 15+ years of dealing with this disease I find I get hope when i have a good day. Give me a few good days and I begin to stretch my limits and get outside (by myself if Ive had enough good days). I overdid it this last weekend and had a horrible 4 block walk home when vertigo decided to hit. My husband was with me, for that I was grateful. Forgetting the trauma of it, ignoring the fear of it, allowing hope to re-enter our hearts and minds is the battle. One we can win!

  4. This is just what I needed Glen , I have no diagnosis at all , but frankly whatever it is, I will handle it. No more running to doctors with he hope that they are going to give a name to what I have. I will go forward and learn to appreciate what I can do , instead of feeling guilty of what had to wait to the day after. I will get older and still going forward. And I will not let my problems keep me in the box, but try very hard to escape.
    However from time to time I need some encouragement, thanks Glen for that article, you never stop encouraging me.
    Could Seligman not have used rats?

  5. Thank you, Glenn! I have been battling bilateral Ménière’s since diagnosis about 2 1/2 yrs ago. My most recent doctor has little hope in helping me. Next month, I will see my fourth doctor, a neurotologist at MUSC I Charleston, SC. I have days when I battle more with myself than the disease, as we all do. I have other diagnoses which are chronic and life altering on their own, so feeling helpless can be a hard habit to break often times. To help combat it, I planned a vacation to the beach for just my kids and me. I planned ahead for a couple of months, being told that maybe I should reconsider or wait until my husband could go, you know, just in case. I refused. My son is of age in case I need a driver or assistance during the random spin out. I had a few instances on vacation but I learned that between the planning and being on vacation, I had switched my brain from thinking “poor pitiful me” to “watch out world, I may walk like a drunk(among other things), but damn it, I’m going to succeed! I did. We had a blast and probably one of the last beach trips my grown son and his little sister will have together. And I got to watch it all. It took a toll, mostly from the connective tissue disease flare (heat/sun/blah,blah), but I would not change any part of our trip. I did it on my own with some help from my son, who is a terrific judge of Mom’s triggers. My point is that even if we have a debilitating disease or two, just take life into your grip and saddle up. No one was promised an easy ride. Mine has personally been hell for the past 8 yrs but what is worse is watching life slip through my fingertips. I won’t ever be counted out by another person, so why count myself out? Thank you again for posting!

  6. its very easy to be depressed with Meniere’s. There is no cure, I don’t think anyone is even working on this disease. Unless you have Meinere’s you just can’t understand how a person feels and all the books in the world will not help you feel better or take the dizziness away. I found out my allergies made Meinere’s worse. I went to the dr for an allergy shot that lasts 3 months and I now take local honey (not the kind that they sell in stores, but where the bees actually make the honey) and of course giving it to God. This def has helped.

    • Rae, did you have allergy tests first to determine exactly what you were allergic to? This is my first summer being bilateral, and I can honestly say it’s been the worst summer. Hayfever, heat, high pressure…I was considering having allergy tests, and an allergy shot, and by the sounds of it, it really helped you! Thanks for your post. Instead of sitting here in misery, I’m going to do something about it!

  7. This article was just what I needed! I truly was feeling hopeless. I’ve been dealing with Ménière’s and imbalance for over 20 years, with the past 2 years being the worst and then really progressive symptoms over the past few weeks. I’ve tried every medicine under the sun, endolymphatic sac surgery and vestibular rehab, and nothing so far has really been successful in completely controlling my daily disequilibrium or frequent episodes of sudden complete loss of balance. After reading the article, I realized I was on the verge of just giving up on the pursuit of other treatment options. I now feel a new sense of empowerment and an incentive to keep trying new therapies and maybe even give vestibular rehab another shot. Thanks Glenn!

  8. Hi Glenn, you might want to explore Jack Kruze. “Loss of DHA in the PVN leads to an excessive amount of amount of sympathetic discharge from the lateral aspect of your brainstem. This is why leaky gut, tinnitus, Meniere’s disease, and migraine’s are always a clues for me that a person’s environment is causing energy loss to the environment. You should increase your intake of DHA and good water while simultaneously searching your environment before you do anything else’.https://www.jackkruse.com/tensegrity-5-magnetic-sense/

  9. Welllll, the U.K. Is working on a cure. Almost there. Just received an award for their efforts. I cannot even get two drs to agree. Disgusted. I think I have meniere’s, but only one young dr thought I was off the charts with it. Others all over the place with what I knew were ridiculous conclusions. After all, I live in my body.

    • It’s tough to get a concrete diagnosis. Your best bet is to try to get a referral to a Neurotologist, which is an ENT who has subspecialized in treating hearing and balance disorders. They have the most experience diagnosing and treating Meniere’s and other vestibular disorders.

  10. Wow, this really struck a cord with me today. Having many ailments including something or other wrong with the vestibular system, my list of limits gets longer each day. Unfortunately there aren’t people around to help and the whole mess lends itself to a pity party. Thank you, the timing couldn’t be any better. It’s time to start reversing how I view the situation and myself.

  11. Hi.. i am new to Meniere’s. I was diagnosed this February and i have had some 6 such episodes so far. The doctor did not speak much about it but recommended me to use stomatel tablets during the dizziness. I am 27. What should i do to keep myself prepared and are there things that i should avoid?

  12. I’m completely alone in my journey. Doctors, family and friends have all turned there backs on me. I’ve lost an amazing employer and independence all because of this.
    Where do I go from here

    • Hi NA, I’m so sorry to hear this. I know how terribly isolating this disease can be. The first thing you need to do is find a better doctor. It’s hard, but they’re out there. You want to find a NeuroTologist – which is an ENT who has subspecialized in treating hearing and balance disorders. This step alone will help considerably. You need to feel like your doctor is on your team. It’s SO important. I also encourage you to read through this post and all the posts it links to: http://mindovermenieres.com/newly-diagnosed

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