Learned Helplessness and Thinking Outside the Box

When scientists try to study human illnesses, they look for an animal model.  That is, they try to find a similar illness in a non-human species so that they can do experimentation on said species.  (Sorry all my animal loving friends; that’s how it’s done.)  One of the animal models for human depression is called “learned helplessness” in dogs.  Essentially, psychologists would place a dog in a cage with an electrified grid at the bottom.  Then they would apply a shock.  A healthy dog will naturally attempt to escape the shock by moving to a location where it doesn’t occur.  If, however, the dog is unable to find a way to escape the painful shock - if she learns that she has no power to affect the outcome of her experiences - she will go into a state called “learned helplessness.”  In which case, the dog will not try to escape the shock even when the cage door is wide open and any healthy being would be able to see that there is a way out.  A dog suffering from learned helplessness will just sit there and take the shocks.

Not only does this behavior look like some forms of human depression, it also responds pharmacologically like it.  Thus, even tho the state was brought on by experience, it can be alleviated by drugs.  Experience affects brain chemistry which in turn affects behavior (which affects experience). Giving a dog with learned helplessness certain anti-depressants will often alleviate the symptoms and the dog will once again act as if she has the power to change her situation.  She will leave the cage - the box that she’s in - when she sees that the door is open. 

What we call depression is actually a complex set of illnesses - most likely not just one illness, even if there are similarities in outward behavior.  We know that some depressed folks respond well to some kinds of anti-depressants but not others, and some don’t respond to any of the known drugs.  This means that different people with so-called “depression” are affected by the altering of different neurotransmitters, indicating that the biological bases of their depressions are different.  (I do not mean to imply that the only way to treat depression is thru drugs - I only focus on the drugs because that’s an easier way to show that what we call “depression” is actually several different illnesses manifesting similar symptoms.) 

For some folks suffering from the depression, the learned helplessness model may not feel at all like your experience.  I get that.  But for me, learned helplessness is exactly what it feels like.  There are voices in my head - I call them my demons - telling me me that everything I do is worthless.  That no matter what I try I will ultimately fail.  That there is no point in even trying.  I don’t necessarily feel sad, tho there are certainly days when I do. The predominant and pervasive feeling that I experience is powerlessness.  Even the smallest things like getting out of bed, showering, brushing one’s teeth, seem to suck up large amounts of energy.  And God help me if I am asked to do something out of the routine, something that requires that I think outside the box, even a small thing. My mind goes blank. I can’t fathom how to accomplish the task, how to even approach it. Problems seem insurmountable.  I fail to see options that are right in front of me, options that any healthy human being would see.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

I totally understand how perplexing it must look to folks on the outside watching this behavior.  It’s like your friend is sitting in a cage - a box - and from your perspective there are doors open left and right thru which she can easily exit.  You try helpfully to point these options out to her.  Yet inexplicably your friend “chooses” to stay in the box. 

I understand why you are frustrated by friends who can’t “snap out of it” or at least seek help.  I understand why you can’t understand why your words of encouragement aren’t enough, how rather than be uplifting your words are actually painful.  After all, why doesn’t your friend *trust* you when you say that she’s wonderful?  It’s almost insulting that she refuses to listen to you.  I understand that you can’t hear the demon voices in my head, which are closer to me than your voice will ever be no matter how much I might care for you. I understand how you start to feel that your friend is like a weight dragging you down... for no good reason!  And that’s why I generally try to hide the box that I’m in from you - camouflage its walls so that it looks like wherever I am is where I choose to be.  Only showing my face in public when I have summoned enough energy to appear “normal.”  “Chipper,” even.  It’s not a fake me; but it is a heavily edited me. 

I have lived with depression all my life.  Or at least since the age of nine, which is when I first remember the pervasive feelings of helplessness.  And there have also been times when I’ve overcome my depression.  I’ve applied to and been accepted by top notch schools and prestigious fellowships.  I’ve gone on interviews where I sold myself as the ideal candidate, successfully stilling the demons in my mind telling me otherwise.  I know that I’ve done these things.  And yet at this moment, I cannot for the life of me imagine how I could have.  It feels like a different person, in a different lifetime. 

So why am I sharing this with you today after admitting that I generally carefully construct an image that hides these things?  It’s because I had an insight that showed me how ridiculous my situation is, and I wanted to share it with you, so that I don’t forget, and perhaps maybe you’ll better understand what it’s like to suffer with at least one form of depression.   First of all, I was asked to make a short video.  That task seemed overwhelming.  I’d never made a video before.  I didn’t know what machine to use, what format to record in, and for some reason I was unable to just sit down and try various approaches until one worked.  That would be the obvious solution, right?  But the idea of trying and *failing* filled me with anxiety.  Finally, over two weeks after the requested deadline, I mustered enough energy to just sit down and mess with things until I’d gotten a useable video. Unfortunately, when I sent in the video file, the sound did not work and I was asked to send another where the sound worked.  A perfectly reasonable request, but it filled me with anxiety. I had tried and I had FAILED.  What do I do now?  I sat on it for a day.  Then I tried emailing the original file, which played fine on my computer, but the file was too big to send as an attachment.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I tried to download Quicktime, as had been suggested.  But there is no version for Windows 8, which my computer runs.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I figured out a way to get Quicktime for Windows 7 to operate on Windows 8.  And the video played fine, but I couldn’t save it because I had to have the “pro” version of Quicktime to actually create videos.  So I sat on it for another day.  You might think that I just blew off the deadline and the fact that there were people depending on me to do what I had promised, but the truth is that the thought of the video loomed over my waking hours, and the fact that I was disappointing folks was just further evidence that I am a failure.  Finally, today, I all-of-the-sudden remembered that I have a Youtube account and that ordinary people like me can upload videos which can then be played, with sound.  It took less than ten minutes.  Between the time that I was asked to fix the sound and the time I realized that I could put it on Youtube was four days.  It took me four days to *see* a solution that others would have seen immediately.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

But my point isn’t that I’m stupid.  There are times when I can be quite intelligent.  My point is that being stuck in my own little box, the only thing that I could see was the immediate task in front of me - how I could successfully send a video file that had sound?  I could not for some reason reframe the problem to see that there were other ways to share the video that didn’t involve directly sharing a file.  At the moment when I suddenly remembered Youtube, it was as if I looked up and there was a door open that had been there all along but I did not see before.  So I stepped outside of that particular box.  Doesn’t mean that everything is ok now - I know that I’m still in a larger cage - but I’ve temporarily given my demons the slip and have some breathing room, and I do now remember that there are actually ways out.  I do now see that problems that seem enormous are actually sometimes small.  And I hope that by sharing this ridiculously embarrassing story it can encourage some depressed folks in a *non-direct*, not in-your-face, “you can do it” kind of way because trust me I know how much that sucks.  And I hope it can help non-depressed folks better understand the seemingly inexplicable behavior of their depressed friends.

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