Getting out of depression (learned helplessness) by learning to be optimistic


lo_cover.gifI read this brilliant book: Learned Optimism.

In it the author (Dr. Martin Seligman) writes about how they experimented with a dog. They gave the dog shock treatments and gave the dog a way to end the shock by pressing a button or something. The dog didn’t become depressed because the dog had a way to control his environment.

When they stopped the button from working, the dog felt no control over his life… and he became depressed. After the dog had decided he could not longer control his what was happening to him, he became depressed.

Even when they fixed the button so that it would work again, the dog no longer even tried to change what was going on. It had given up. It had decided it could no control anything.

The dog had decided that it had no control over it’s own life… and it gave up. It stopped pressing the button. The dog had learned to be helpless. Even if the opportunity to stop the shocks was provided, it remained helpless. It had learned to be helpless and it remained helpless no matter what changed around it.

It can start in your family

If you grew up in a family in which you were controlled, abused or constantly put down, you may have stopped trying to change the world around you. You also might have learned to be helpless.

big-red.jpgEven if God surrounded you with 100 big red buttons that will change almost everything around you, you may not even try to press them. You may have become depressed because you have learned (perhaps from your childhood or a recent disappointment) that you are unable to change your experience of life.

But what if that dog gave it another go and pressed the button? What if he unlearned that he was powerless? What if he thought it through and gave it another chance? What if he pressed the button and made a change to his environment? What if he decided he was not helpless and stopped behaving as if he is?

Yes, if he reached out and changed something, then some pain would stop.

If you are stuck in depression, it is possible that you have somehow learned that nothing you can do will change what you are experiencing. You might not even try any more.

It can start with a divorce or marriage

You may have come through a long and painful divorce. People only get a divorce when they give up. No one gives up quickly. So in a divorce you may have learned to be helpless. Here are a few scenarios how you may have learned to be helpless: maybe over a few years you could not make the other person happy – so you stopped trying. Perhaps for a few years you felt like you could not do anything right in their eyes – so you stopped trying. In this way you may have learned to be helpless.

But perhaps the marriage is over now. You need to see that you are living a different life. You have some control now. You have choices. Does it make sense to still behave in a helpless way? The dog was given a way to control his life, but because he had learned to be helpless, he couldn’t change his mind. He remained helpless and therefore remained depressed.

Perhaps you are not yet divorced, perhaps there is still time to change. You could try to express yourself, you could try new things with your partner. Try other ways of doing things that aren’t working. Helplessness results in depression – that isn’t good for a marriage. Try something else.

You CAN unlearn and change

You are not a dog. You are not an animal.

Learning optimism is done by consciously challenging any negative self talk.

You CAN change your mind. You CAN decide to control your life and do things that will lessen the pain. You CAN change and you CAN start with just a few small things. Start with your hair. Then your clothes. Then try avoiding hurtful people. Then go to a church where you feel loved. Then go to counselling and learn new skills. Then… then… then…

Bit by bit you CAN change your experience of the world around you. YOU CAN. 🙂

Here is an online test which is created by someone else. Enjoy this learned optimism test. I will write more about this book next week. I’m off to the coast. I’m changing my world to be a WHOLE LOT more fun. What are you going to change in your world? 🙂

UPDATE: My weekend was awesome. About it: Back from a gr8 weekend

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23 responses to “Getting out of depression (learned helplessness) by learning to be optimistic

  1. This was wonderful! It is all a part of being born again and renewing the mind. Start small and keep going. I suffered with suicidal depression until around 40. I tried all the drugs & therapy. Nothing worked. Renewing the mind does. Thank you! People need this.

  2. Mark, this entire topic makes me concerned for some who may read it and are at a completely different spot on the spectrum of depression than what you imply.

    First off, being in an emotional rutt where your self worth is low, where you have forgotten the blessings you enjoy, where you’ve lost touch with God’s purpose in your life and you’re struggling to be motivated about anything, where you’ve allowed yourself to believe nothing greater is in store for you, where you have a case of “learned helplessness”…. this is NOT depression so let’s not associate these scenarios with it. The term depression is overused and the title of this topic offends me right off the top as a result. Being depressed means you’ve lost the will to live well anymore, and it affects not just your emotional state, but your spiritual, physical and of course mental as well. Those who are really depressed cannot merely self assess and decide to change their paradigm anymore than someone can look in a mirror and decide to change the colour of their eyes permanently.

    God has full reign. God can change someone experiencing depression without any other input from us, however, he often chooses to work through others like doctors, therapists, and medical treatments. Those who are depressed need to seek help, and receive it through whatever avenue God provides for them. Let’s not make generalizations that those who are depressed ” need to learn how to be your own best friend. Learn to love yourself and care for yourself. Learn to have fun” Mark. This statement alongside the situation someone faces in a serious depression is offensive. Mark, you also say “I did it. You can do it.”… which is trite and shallow. If you were truly depressed, then God must have delivered you in a way that was supernatural and without the aid of those professionals in the field, so how then did YOU do it? You didn’t. Otherwise you were either experiencing some low times in your life, or God Himself delivered you. Don’t generalize or trivialize this.

    To those who are in a depression right now… you may not be able to pray, or feel like anything has worth. Seek out someone who can pray with and for you on a regular basis, and continue to ask for help without embarrassment, until you have formed a team of support, both spiritual, and professional as God provides. Don’t downplay it or take responsibility as something you have failed to do… but treat it as a disease that you have to deal with one way or the other. Through the darkest times know that Christ died for you and that he will make a way forward, but you will need to fight and fight and be willing to seek and accept help to get there. You can not do it alone, and you cannot simply “learn not to be helpless” as this article may imply.And for all of use who simply miss the point, and fail you in your need, forgive us, but don’t stop asking for help.

  3. SOMETIMES NEGATIVE REMARKS FROM GROWING UP OR EVEN FROM OTHERS AROUND US LEAVE US WITH A WOUNDED AND CRUSHED SPIRIT. ASK GOD TO HELP HEAL YOU FROM THOSE WHO HAVE WOUNDED OR EVEN CRUSHED YOUR SPIRIT. ASK FOR THE INDWELLING OF THE HOLY SPIRIT TO SEE THINGS IN POSITIVE WAYS. SPEAK POSITIVE ABOUT GOD’S LOVE FOR YOU AND THAT YOU ARE FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE AND YOU ARE CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. YOU ARE NOT TRASH NOR RUBBAGE YET DIAMONDS ARE FOUND IN TRASH AND RUBBAGE,GOD HAS MADE YOU BEAUTIFUL ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT. WHEN HE MADE YOU HE LITTERALLY BROKE THE MOLD. LOL GOD BLESS YOU AND I PRAY YOU SEE HOW FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY YOU ARE ACTUALLY MADE. HELEN

  4. I find this to be very true. I was diagnosed with clinical depression having been abused at home. Life was tough living in my own skin and I found that the things that help are of the smallest. It is exacly as was said: just look in the mirror and admire your beauty and your hair. You are perfect and somehow, the days don’t seem so bleak. It gives you the will to just hang on for just another half day.

    • You are so right Azukisiwe

      It’s the small things that make the most difference. You need to learn how to be your own best friend. Learn to love yourself and care for yourself. Learn to have fun. Those are hard things to learn if you were raised in an abusive home.

      I did it. You can do it.

      Keep praying. God bless you 🙂 Mark.

  5. I read this post and initially I’m seeing the potential for it to be encouraging. However, we Christians are known for passing someone a book, or patting someone on the shoulder and saying things like “don’t worry, be happy”… please, it doesn’t work that way. Rejoice in the Lord always… that means when circumstances are the worst, but it’s “in the Lord”… that inner JOY that says you can take all my worldly comforts, and I will suffer, and yet I will thank God for what He has done for me, for my salvation. I am a bit concerned for all those who suffer from depression who need medical assistance to balance their brain chemistry. God works through Doctors, often to their own amazement. To say to someone in this situation to “change your clothes, your hair, look on the bright side, don’t be a negative nancy, just be happy” doesn’t make any sense, they need us Christians to be there on their doorstep, to pray when they can’t, to feed them, to take them to appointments, to cry with them when their positive reserves have been used up. Saying, “I’ll pray for you” doesn’t cut it… you have to do it and suffer with them, and guess what, it sucks. In the midst of this broken and often dark world, Christ is our hope… beyond all doubt, but it doesn’t take the pain away, or make things easy… often it gets more difficult first. I wish we could corporately stop painting on smiles and saying the “how are you doing?? Oh, I’m fine” dance when we see others…. what would you do when someone finally is honest as says “actually, things are really bad right now”, say “have you thought about changing how you dress?” … or would you be prepared to stop walking… go out for coffee and cry with them? We need to be prepared to be more real and honest about the realities of life around us, and not dismissive for someone who already feels like they can’t manage to get out of bed, let alone change their image on a dime….

    • Wow!! You’ve hit the head of the nail. Im a christian suffering from depression, and like you I know that god is with me through my pain but it does not retract from the feelings of guilt and despair that can be the realities of depression. My hope is that more people start showing God’s practical love. A shoulder to lean on, a trusting ear or an umbrella from the rain of life’s problems.
      Bless

    • I really like what you have to say here. We definately need to be more open and honest with the way we feel.If this were more socially acceptable I am pretty sure we would not have teenagers walking into schools with guns and shooting themselves and others. We wouldn’t have many of the huge health care problems we have now in North America that can be attributed to mental illness and depression. What is wrong with our communication these days? Changing your hair and getting a new look…..? We need to go deeper than that with one another and I agree so strongly…we need to make the time for eachother. Too many lives have de-railed because we dont value this enough. I know. I have paid the price for it myself and it is tough to regain what is lost.

    • EXACTLY AS PUT. EVEN ECC. SAYS ABOUT WHEN ONE FALLS DOWN ALONE. GOD BLESS YOU FOR THE TRUTH WRITTEN HERE. GOD WILL CERTAINLY USE YOU TO HELP OTHERS IT HELPED ME HELEN

  6. This is a very useful page indeed. I suffer with depression which comes and goes for no apparent reason, i.e. it seems to have no obvious relation to what’s happening in my life at the time, but just putting an effort into one’s appearance really does help as does doing some exercise and eating healthily. I also just read your page on Jeremiah “He has plans to prosper you…” I am awaiting a phonecall about a job with a charity and believe it is from God but am having difficulty in being patient.

    • Hi Susan

      While you wait for God to give you a blessing, remember what He said to them to do while they wait during those 70 years. During that time they are to take care of themselves 🙂

      Are you taking care of you? Making a home? Looking after you?

      God bless you, Mark.

  7. This is SO GOOD. I love this blog – I deal a whole lot with people who are depressed because of a divorce or custody situation and the hardest thing to do is to convince people to deal with change – do something different – believe that things will get better – and get unstuck.

    I love the advice “start with your hair”. I would add, “eat more vegetables and fresh fruits” and “go for a short walk every day and think of the things you are grateful for” and “don’t dwell on the negative. Dwell on the positive, even if you have to search it out, hunt it down, and write down that good thing that is happening in your life.”

    I tell clients (I’m a family law attorney) that worry is a kind of sin – not that you don’t take care to think things through, but you don’t let worry bog you down because if you do, lots of stuff can happen that would not happen if you stay positive and focused on the goals you have.

    “don’t worry, be happy” – I call it being Christian. I suppose it is also Jamaican. Whatever it is, Paul said “rejoice, and again I say, rejoice” as he was in a prison cell which filled daily with sewage – while he was in it.

    Great site. I pray for the word of it, and the Word of God, to get out there!

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