In my decades of experience working with patients as a physician, Michele’s formerly passive approach to her health is not uncommon. Many patients take this auto mechanic approach to health, handing over their bodies to doctors they may not even screen as carefully as they choose their auto mechanics, never questioning what the doctor says, seeking clarity when they’re confused, asking for second opinions when they doubt the diagnosis or treatment plan of the doctor, or taking their bodies elsewhere when something doesn’t feel right.
Essentially these patients, especially the ones who've been labeled with a “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal” illness, have been programmed to believe that Western medicine has done all it can do and they are therefore at the mercy of doctors who can’t cure them. They often come to experience what physician and researcher Martin Seligman coins “learned helplessness.”
When We Learn Helplessness
In one landmark study, Madelon Visintainer, a colleague of Seligman’s, performed a study on three groups of rats. The first group was given a mild escapable shock, which the rats could avoid once they learned how. The second group was given a mild inescapable shock, which rendered them helpless. The third group was given no shock at all.
Before setting about shocking these poor rats, Visintainer implanted a few cancer cells on each rat’s flank. The cancer was the kind that would invariably kill the rat if the rat’s immune system failed to fend off the cancer. Visintainer carefully controlled the number of cancer cells she implanted, such that she could expect that, under normal conditions, about half the rats would reject the tumor and live. The other half would succumb and die.
Everything externally was perfectly controlled—their diet, how they were housed, the tumor burden. The only difference between the three groups of rats was their psychological experience. The rats experiencing escapable shocks quickly learned how to game the system, ultimately escaping the shocks after going through a learning curve. The rats getting inescapable shocks were learning helplessness. And the unshocked rats were just minding their own business, with neither the empowering challenge of figuring out how to escape the shocks or the trauma of getting shocked.
As expected, within a month, 50% of the unshocked rats had died, while the other 50% of unshocked rats fought off the tumor. But curiously, the rats given escapable shocks, who learned how to master the system, rejected the tumor 70% of the time, giving them a survival advantage over the unshocked rats. The rats who couldn’t escape the shocks, however, wound up listless and helpless, and only 27% rejected the tumor.
The Health Dangers Of Learned Helplessness
Based on this data, researchers concluded that learned helplessness in rats who couldn’t escape the shocks must have suppressed the immune response known to fight off cancer cells in tumors of this sort. Further study of these helpless rats found that, indeed, inescapable shocks weaken the immune system. We know that the bodies of both humans and rats have natural self-repair mechanisms that not only fight cancer cells, but other disease.
But one of the important natural self-repair mechanisms of the helpless rats was deactivated. The T-cells of the helpless rats no longer multiplied and got down to the business of fighting off cancer cells when they came across invading outsiders. Natural killer cells, also important in fighting off cancers and other foreign invaders, lost their natural killer abilities. These studies confirmed what researchers had suspected.
Optimists Are Healthier Than Pessimists
Psychological states can directly affect the outcome of remission from some diseases, at least those that are immune-mediated, as many cancers are.
This may explain why optimists are healthier than pessimists. In addition to the data suggesting that those who learn helplessness may be at higher risk of cancer, studies show that optimists have a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimists and are 45% less likely to die from other causes.
When bad things happen, pessimists have a tendency to view the negative events as permanent (“It will always be bad”), pervasive (“It affects not just this bad event, but everything,”), and personal (“This bad event is all my fault.”) Optimists, on the other hand, view negative events as temporary, specific, and not personal.
Pessimists Learn Helplessness
Because of their healthier explanatory styles in the face of negative life events, optimists are more likely to learn healthy adaptations in response to life’s shocks, making them immune to states of learned helplessness. Pessimists, on the other hand, feel like life’s shocks are inescapable, and like the listless, helpless rats, they get depressed and their immune systems weaken. Over the course of a lifetime, fewer episodes of learned helplessness may keep the immune system stronger, reduce stress responses and the negative health outcomes that accompany them, and make disease less likely.
But as the patient, you don’t have to be the helpless rat getting repetitively shocked. You can learn to be a proactive patient, and doing so has been scientifically proven to improve your health outcomes. (Get tips on how to be a proactive patient by downloading my free Self-Healing Kit).
Are You Ready To Be A Proactive Patient?
Tell us how you avoid helplessness and act as an empowered patient in the comments.