What "Give-Up-Itis" Is — And Why It Can Be So Dangerous

Image by Vera Lair

The power of positive thinking is immeasurable. It may be a cliche, but more often than not, it's that hope for brighter horizons that gets us out of bed, helps finish a stressful work task, or pushes us to run the extra mile. Sadly, the other side of the coin—that is, a negative, debilitating outlook—might have an equally powerful effect on the human psyche. Today neuropsychologists are studying how giving up can lead a person down the dark road of both mental and physical failure—one that can ultimately end in death.

A new study published in the journal Medical Hypotheses sheds light on the downward cycle known as "give-up-itis," or GUI. It's a form of mental defeat in which the person's mental state leads to a self-inflicted, psychogenic death. According to doctors, GUI shows no outward, identifiable causes or signs of death. But the present study suggests it could be caused by a change in the anterior cingulate circuit, a region of the brain that deals with motivation and goal-directed behavior.

"Severe trauma might trigger some people's anterior cingulate circuit to malfunction," says Dr. John Leach, a University of Portsmouth senior research fellow and the study author, in a news release. "Motivation is essential for coping with life, and if that fails, apathy is almost inevitable."

There are five discernible stages leading up to GUI. The pattern begins with a stressor or traumatic event that results in extreme social and environmental withdrawal. People in this stage show a sharp lack of emotion and indifference to their surroundings. They then turn to apathy, a type of utter, existential melancholy and lack of will to live; one clear marker in this second stage is the person no longer caring about their personal hygiene. In the third stage, the person falls to aboulia, in which their lack of motivation expands into an inability to make decisions or an unwillingness to participate in even basic human activities like eating and bathing. In the fourth stage, the person experiences psychic akinesia, where they stop responding to outside stimuli—for example, they may not even react to extreme pain or the experience of soiling themselves.

And then finally, they die. The person simply gives up on any future hope to continue.

That's exactly what happened to some of those who served in the Korean War, where the concept of GUI first originated. Prisoners of war felt a deep loss of hope and "seemed willing to accept the prospect of death rather than to continue fighting a severely frustrating and depriving environment," according to the paper. And so they simply passed away.

Interestingly, we're not all equally susceptible to the effects of GUI and psychogenic death. Personality type and life experiences can affect a person's susceptibility, but it's still unclear whether or not such things can actually predict the onset of GUI. "Some individuals considered stalwarts in normal life would surprise their companions by perishing quickly," Dr. Leach writes.

According to research, people typically die within three days to three weeks from GUI if not forced to make a change or respond to their environment. Luckily, it's possible to recover from the cycle through self-motivation or more serious external motivators, such as through friends and family or by taking medicines that activate the dopamine receptors in our brains.

Most traumatic events are beyond our control and happen suddenly. That's why it's crucial for us all to have a proper coping plan in place for whatever life may throw our way when we least expect it. Remember: Trauma doesn't have to destroy us. In some cases, it can even be a catalyst for growth.

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