Before You Give Up, Read This!
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Have you ever had that feeling, where things just start to seem so hopeless, that you just want to give up? Not that you're thinking of harming yourself, just that you're so tired of feeling overwhelmed, so done with things not working out, that you just want to resign to the way things are? Give in to the negative stories you have in your mind about the inadequacies of your self or the impossibilities of the world? Before you do, read this!
Maybe you've heard of the famous Psychologist, Irvin Pavlov? He received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the "conditioned reflex", where he "taught" the dogs' bodies to physiologically respond to conditioned events--ie. he rang the bell before dinner and discovered that the dogs mouth watered not in response to food, but reacting to the bell. Well something else remarkable came from Pavlov's experiments.
In 1924, there was a great thaw in St. Petersburg that led to the River Neva to flood. Pavlov's laboratory consequently became flooded, leaving the dogs unattended in their cages, unable to get out. They were trapped in icy cold waters, unknowing whether they would drown in the rising waters--there was no escape. Pavlov noticed that even though the dogs survived without injury, they seemed to have "broken down" emotionally, behaviorally and physiologically. Many of them laid around motionless, barely paying attention to what was going on around them. Other dogs sat shaking in the corner of their cages, while others who were previously well-tempered began to attack their handlers. They had erratic heart rates in response to minor stressors and extreme startle responses.
Pavlov understood this change to be the result of "the existence of two conflicting physical impulses" during the flood--they were trapped, could not get out of their cages, yet at the same time, their bodies were programmed to run and escape in the face of danger. This is known as "inescapable shock", which is similar to "learned helplessness".
What do Pavlov's dogs have to do with me?
Great! I was hoping you would ask this question.
We've learned that people respond to inescapable shock in a similar way. When people can't physically escape, but while our bodies are programmed to escape, our central nervous system resets. We don't "learn helplessness" only in our mind--we experience it in our body. Our bodies retain the memory of being physically unable to move, no matter what we do. Even if our mind is unaware of it, even if we do talk therapy around our "learned helplessness", our body remembers. And when things get hard, we can feel a push toward immobilization. Toward giving up. Resigning. "A flood's coming, but there's nothing I can do". Except it's not just a thought. It's coded into our nervous system.
Resilience--On Not Giving Up
So it's possible that you learn toward resignation because your central nervous system has been "reset" by an experience of "inescapable shock". And if that's the case, it's important to realize that in times of stress, you may feel a strong push to give up. Part of healing is this awareness, acknowledgment and acceptance. The more peace you have with this pattern, the less likely it is to win. But it's also possible to reset your central nervous system.
At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, therapy is trauma-informed, meaning that attention to experience is not only gathered through talk, but it's also focused on relationship and non-verbal cues, including body language. It's not just what you're thinking--it's what you're feeling...in your mind and your body. It's important to remember that what you're experiencing is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. One in which you were trapped and could not escape. You had no choice to give up. Creating Space and Wellness can offer you hope--you do have a choice and you don't have to resign or settle for less than you're worth.
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