Learned helplessness is the basis for understanding the root causes of depression and panic anxiety. Early researchers discovered that when dogs were given electrical shocks that they could not control, they later showed signs of anxiety and depression. If the experiment went on for too long, the dogs didn’t even try to escape the shocks and instead just collapsed in a corner of their cage.
If a “safe area” was made in the cage where the dogs could go to in order to not receive any shocks, they would act helpless and not move. If they were picked up and forcibly placed in the “safe” corner, they would voluntarily return to the side where they were continually exposed to electrical shocks, sitting and shaking in a helpless and anxious state. It was as if the dogs were saying that they were helpless and deserved the pain and suffering. Therapists refer to this anxious, suffering, response as one of having developed “learned helplessness.”
When a lever was added so that the dogs could use it to stop the shocks, the dogs didn’t develop any anxiety response. This is an important element known as control. Knowing how to be in control of one’s environment makes for a great deal of difference in what responses we learn and exhibit. Occasionally some dogs didn’t master the ability to use the lever to turn off the shocks. This is not learned helplessness; instead, these dogs were “failing to learn to control.”
Back in prehistoric times, our primitive minds didn’t have the necessary tools to deal with each threat. So, our brains treated any stressor as a threat. This ensured both protection and survival. As a result, the default (normal) position of the brain is to assume that stress is NOT controllable. Our “ancient” brain stem (located on the top of the spinal cord) is not smart enough to know whether stress is controllable or not; it just responds. In the face of stress, the brain stem just activates the body’s stress responses.
In the experiments where the dogs were exposed to uncontrollable shocks, their levels of serotonin in their brains peaked. However, when they learned to control the shocks by pressing the lever, their serotonin levels dramatically dropped and the front parts of their brains were more active. Since the front parts of our brains help us to regulate impulse control, give motivation, and focus, it’s as if our brain is telling our brain stem, “Relax. We’ve got the situation under control”.
So it is only with training that we can learn to relax when a situation is under control. We can think our way in, out of, and around a problem. Our minds give us tools that we can use to teach us, with practice, to calm down our gut instinct in the “fight vs. flight” survival response. However, this takes time and practice.