Over Exposed

The antidote to "learned helplessness" is "learned optimism"

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My day began slightly differently than the seemingly endless blur of quarantine mornings. Instead of starting the day with my morning fix of caffeine and corona, I elected to leave the television off. If exposure was responsible for the gnawing anxiety all day long, I reasoned, then why not curtail the onslaught?    

For the first hour I felt an undeniable sense of peace and calm. I said to myself that this is the way I always felt pre-pandemic on a Saturday morning. As I slipped into hour two of this experiment, I convinced myself that perhaps I would never allow social media into my house again. After all, I reasoned, the events of the world were going to continue with or without me. I was pleased it appeared that I had taken back possession of my own thoughts. But then, a funny thing began to happen in hour three, with the television sitting blank and lifeless in front of me. Like a person who had convinced himself after days of fasting that he wasn’t even hungry, I was suddenly famished. I lunged for the remote, and when the images began to appear on the screen, I felt reconnected. Despite the fact that there were horrific images of people being wheeled into the hospital on gurneys, and the ever increasing, “confirmed cases” and “deaths,” I felt not only reconnected, but strangely back in control. I was confused about what my little experiment had revealed to me.

Then I recalled the ground-breaking research by Martin Seligman demonstrating that when rats are repeatedly exposed to aversive stimuli (shocks), with one group having the ability to turn off the shocks via a lever, and the other not – the group with no lever develop “learned helplessness.” In humans, exposed to aversive stimuli (stimuli they cannot control) this learned helpless results in lower self-esteem, passivity, anxiety, and depression. When humans or animals are given some measure of control – (in rats it was pressing a lever), they do not develop learned helplessness. I asked myself, was the bombarding of negative news the aversive stimuli delivering the shocks to my system? Was I at risk to contract not only covid-19 but also learned helplessness?

I realized from my personal experience that though we can’t avoid being exposed to the stimuli for long, perhaps our lever of control is our attitude. I noted that in my patients there was a clear division in how people were responding to this situation. Simply put, the cognitive mindset of some of my patients was one of pessimism, while others chose an attitude of optimism. The individuals with a negative mindset –  like a magnet – tend to pull in negative facts. Listening to the same news report that buoys optimists up with hope, pessimists come away feeling even more discouraged.

Decades after his original research, Seligman discovered that people who leaned towards a positive attitude developed an antidote to “learned helplessness.” He called this antidote learned optimism. Seligman’s research shows three basic differences between optimists and pessimists.

Permanence- Optimists view even the worst circumstances as temporary; they bounce back more quickly from failure and setbacks.

Personalization– Pessimists blame themselves for negative things that occur. Optimists blame bad events on external circumstances. Optimists are more confident.

Pervasiveness– Pessimistic people assume failure in one-area and it floods into all other areas. Optimists are better at compartmentalizing events they can’t control.

It is not exposure to negative news alone that results in hopelessness but the lens with which we view the input. Challenge the negative thoughts in your head. Your attitude is not simply a state but a strategy for how you get through this time. Even exposure to the most negative news of the day can result in positive personal solutions if you have the right frame of mind. Though we can’t predict the future, or end of the pandemic, we can use the tools of “learned optimism” to change our mindset. We can be Over Exposed without being overwhelmed.

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