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 heard the 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.
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.)
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?”