Learned helplessness

How to Thrive When

Under Continual Stress

We know that when we suffer from continual stress, choices seem limited and thereby decrease our effectiveness. Behavioral scientists have a name for this psychological reaction: learned helplessness.

This phenomenon has been studied in laboratory rodents whose nervous system bears striking similarities to that of humans. Here is how one experiment works. If you provide mice with an escape route, they typically learn very quickly how to avoid a mild electrical shock that occurs a few seconds after they hear a tone. But if the escape route is blocked whenever the tone is sounded, and new shocks occur, the mice will eventually stop trying to run away. Later, even after the escape route is cleared, the animals simply freeze at the sound of the tone—despite the fact that they once knew how to avoid the associated shock.

Obviously, humans have more intellectual resources than mice, but the underlying principle remains. Just being aware of the nervous system's built-in bias toward learned helplessness in the face of continual stress can help you identify and develop healthy habits that will buffer at least some of the stress.

Tip: It is important not to ignore how the brain changes when under continual stress. You owe it to yourself and others for whom you care not to let this happen. You can accomplish this by (1) realizing that regardless of the situation, stimulus, or urge, a person always has a choice as to the response, and (2) developing the habit of redirecting negative self-talk. Learning to act reflectively (rather than reflexively) can prevent learned helplessness that inevitably increases stress and reduces effectiveness.

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