Wednesday, 13 February 2013

VI) Hope & Helplessness

In 1967, an American psychologist named Martin Seligman began a series of experiments that related to his interest in depression.
Now you may not want to read on if you hate hearing about Animal Cruelty, as with many historical psychological experiments, it lacked in ethics abound... however on the up side (if there is one), none of the dogs in the experiment died, these studies did reveal interesting relevant results, and as with Harry Harlow and his monkey's... Modern day psychologists still uses their discoveries whilst trying to understand the workings of the human brain, human behaviour and psycho-pathologies that many of us battle today.
(Maybe it is some consolation, that it was trials such as Harry Harlow's "isolation experiments" - that were responsible for the birth of the first Animal Liberation and Rights movements).

Seligman's experiments began with three groups of dogs, and all three groups were placed in harnesses.
The dogs in group one were simply put in the harness, then shortly thereafter released.
But for the remaining two groups of dogs, life was not quite as lovely. A dog from group two, was 'yoked' to a group three dog,.. then both dogs were subjected to electro-shock pain, and had a lever to press, which, for the dogs from group two, shut off the pain. Group three's dogs were not so lucky, and the levers were ineffective. The only way for the shocks to stop, were when group two's dogs hit the lever, which taught group three's dogs the shocks were at random and they were unable to control them.

Several different stages of this experiment were carried out, you can read it all in full here, but I will save the rest of you the reading time and tell you, it was all pretty mean stuff, dogs from group one were put into situations that caused no distress, and the dogs in group two were shown ways to escape the pain quickly and effectively. Group three's dogs had no control over the pain submitted, and had no influence over when the pain would stop or start.
The dogs in group one and two recovered fairly quickly from the experience, seemingly unscathed, but the dogs from group three showed signs of what today is called "Learned Helplessness", as the experiments went on they seemed to have become conditioned to the fact that the pain was inescapable, and they made no attempts for escape - instead they lay down passively and whined, it was said they showed signs of chronic 'Clinical Depression'.

The studies were later tested on different animals and eventually on humans, using distracting or unpleasant noises in lieu of pain.
The results were the same. Group three's participants all became resigned to their fate and lost hope, displaying signs of depression and learned helplessness.
There was one different reaction that humans showed in this experience, we showed signs of 'shared learned helplessness' - as in, we could watch someone undergoing the third treatment, and learn just through observation that life is cruel, bleak and meaningless, and sympathetically become depressed and helpless too.

BUT SARAH?! Why have you subjected me to all this canine abuse??? are you a socio-path?
Hmm maybe?, but no,  my reason for summarising a complete study into a rather sloppy few paragraphs, is that 'Learned Helplessness' is one of the most crippling parts of depression (in my experience).
When does this come in? Are we the group three's of the world? how can we avoid it or cure it, can we reverse the effects?

I don't know.
Not yet, though I am sure there are many psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, therapists, websites, and self-help books out there that are willing to bet they have the cure!... and maybe they do, I don't know...
All I can give you is my experiences, which, after all is, what this blog is about; Sharing my experiences in the hopes that the pain and suffering I have lived through, isn't all for naught. That maybe someone will gain something from my writings, if not you, then maybe me.
So I shall talk to you now about MY experiences with 'Learned Helplessness' and what it means to me.

I think bullying was part 1 for me. Receiving physical, verbal and emotional abuse from several sources throughout my childhood, from other children, from adults, people who should have known better, who were supposed to dish out love, not violence. This taught me that no matter what I did, how good I behaved, how nice I was to people, no matter what clothes I wore or who I made friends with, I would always be picked on. I had my earrings ripped out in early primary, and even though my mother yelled at the boy who did it, in front of the entire class, it did little to stop the name calling and daily torture. I saw another boy being taunted by the ENTIRE school on the playground, all just chanting his name over and over again, I don't even know what he had done, or what they meant by it, everyone just thought it would be fun to join in while he sat on the ground sobbing. I watched on from the classroom where I was finishing a painting... this memory further cemented the futility of it, why bother trying? what could you do really?
We finally switched schools, but alas I would get my bag thrown off the bus, I would be isolated in the classroom, or told to stop being friends with so & so's cousin because I wasn't good enough. I just accepted it, I had learnt by then, by age 9, that there was no point arguing, there was no point telling the teacher, or my parents or asking anyone for help, I was always going to be picked on. I may have even attracted it, because  holiday programmes I attended, where I knew none of the kids at the start, still had me at the bottom of the pecking order, further bullied and picked on, and bossed around by those bigger and braver than I. I don't even remember if I even mentioned the bullying to my parents? It was obvious to me I was the problem, I was the common denominator here.
It was only the death of my best friend some two years later that elevated my status in the social hierarchy of the school, and I became a person of interest after that for the following two years. But it didn't reverse the damage that had been done, and I still received the same treatment from other areas, I didn't learn to fight back til' I was 16 years old... even then, self harm and self medication became a common coping technique with the left over pain.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, if we can be conditioned to give in, we can be conditioned to fight back. Not physically of course, unless it is a means of survival, but we can stand up to our aggressors.
First of all, the law is on our side. Nobody owns our bodies. Just because we are born to people, or hired by people or loved by people, doesn't mean they have the right to hurt us, mentally or physically.
I  believe it is our responsibility to seek help if we can, because sometimes those that are doing the hurting, don't know how to stop, but as a child, that is not always possible, this is why we must always protect those that cannot protect themselves, everyone deserves the right to be in the second group (if not the first), we deserve the right to learn that even though life can be painful, and situations can be unpleasant, pain is temporary, and if it isn't? we are allowed to cry for help!
There are too many situations in everyday society where people are being conditioned to feel helpless. Those with mental illnesses that are told they will never get better. Those that are struggling and are told 'it's all in your head'. Those that are called 'retarded' or 'psychopaths', or told they can never change.
It's like being given an exam on Rocket Engineering. Unless that is your forte you are not going to get past page one, and by the end of that first page you will have most likely conditioned yourself to believe that this is 'too hard' and given up. I know I probably would!
But what if it was a general knowledge quiz, and you knew that while you wouldn't be able to answer every segment 100% correctly, some of it was right in your wheelhouse?... you may not pass with a perfect score, but you may still pass? would you give it a go? most of us would I think.

All we need is a glimmer of hope, just enough to show us we have a shot at making it through, that we can find happiness within ourselves and acceptance from those around us... we just need to feel loved, and safe, and have our basic needs met. It make take us a little longer to achieve this then most, we have a lot of damage control to do, but I believe it can be done with time, and with talking, and with taking each day one step at a time, rather then looking at how far we have to go yet.

So this post goes out to all those that feel helpless, or stuck right now, all those in pain that feel like there is no end in sight. We will make it through this, because all that pain and hurt and all those negative influences that have brought us down, don't deserve to win.

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