As an adult with Sensory Processing Disorder, I am often baffled and mystified by my own patterns of thinking, as if it’s not really me who’s thinking these things, but some stranger I barely know.
Sometimes, the conversation between my brain and I goes something like this:
Why don’t you leave this situation if you’re uncomfortable, Brain?
Yes you can. Just go.
I’m stuck here.
No you’re not.
Yes I am. Literally glued here. Stuck forever. This is my life now.
What on earth…ok, listen Brain, just move your right foot and then your left. Head towards the exit. Slow and steady.
I can’t feel my legs. This is the end. I don’t even think I have legs! AHHHHH-
This thought process is called learned helplessness. It happens when you feel that no matter what you do, you have no control or power to change your situation, despite having the ability to do so. It happens when you repeatedly face a negative or painful situation.
In real life, learned helplessness can be seen in many situations:
A boy may believe he is terrible at mathematics and reading because he consistently fails his exams and struggles with homework. Turns out, he has dyslexia and he needs a different approach to learning. But until that happens, he will always feel helpless when it comes to academic achievement, and school will feel like a waste of time to him. If nothing is done for him, he will grow to be apathetic towards all kinds of learning.
Another common example with learned helplessness appears in people who have chronic health conditions. Someone who is fighting leukemia may start to believe that no matter what treatment they have, the leukemia will never improve. Their negative outlook may start to blind them from seeing possible successes or additional treatment options because they feel everything is out of their control, and therefor, doesn’t matter.
For many of you dear readers, you may be thinking, “GEE-WHIZ, this sounds an awful lot like me.”
YUP! AND BOY DO I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU.
It may surprise you (although probably not, let’s be honest with ourselves) to hear that those of us with neurological conditions are probably familiar with the feelings of learned helplessness. Think about it; if you have autism and are sound sensitive, you might behave in a helpless way whenever you are in an environment that has been loud and distressing for you before because experience has taught you that it will probably be distressing again and there’s nothing you can do about that.
Imagine a loop, except the loop is made of anxiety and trauma. When you start to make laps around the loop, this is when learned helplessness is created in your neural pathways – the deep grooves in your brain that form when you repeat something over and over. Consider yourself a professional athlete, but in the worst game of all time. Move over Hunger Games, this is the Tour de Trauma.
Ok. That’s fascinating stuff, but what do you do if you are stuck running around the loop? How do you stop learned helplessness? Nobody wants to be a hamster on a wheel (except maybe hamsters?)
We’re going to simmer on the idea of learned helplessness for a while. See you all in PART 2 for more info about learned helplessness.