January 11, 2024
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Finding Your Power: Breaking Out of Depression and Anxiety

Let’s imagine a bird in a cage. It’s the most glorious-looking bird you’ve ever seen. Such well-defined colors and you could stare at it all day. It’s a lovely bird that brings joy to those who see it. However, this bird has never been out of the cage.

One day, the cage is opened and the bird is released but it can’t fly – not because its wings have been cut off but because it still believes that it’s trapped. The bird stays in the cage even when it’s free to go – it thinks that it can’t fly because it’s been conditioned to stay trapped in its cage.  At Meridian Idaho Counseling, our therapists are here to help you gain the skills and empower you so that you can open the doors on the cages that have kept you depressed and anxious.

Let’s bring in an example that’s closer home. Remember how tough math class was for some of us? You can pick any subject that you loathed – math is just a personal preference.

If at all you ever failed a test, did you ever think for a minute that you were beyond help? “The test was too hard.” “I didn’t study enough.” “I am stupid” and carried that same mentality to succeeding tests – which you failed. In those moments when you got your results, you felt helpless and thought that you’d never pass that subject so there wasn’t any reason for you to try because you’d fail anyway.

Both examples are of learned helplessness – the belief that we have no control over our circumstances so we anticipate pain, suffering, or discomfort without attempting to escape it or solve the problem. Even if the conditions were to change, learned helplessness makes us think that there is no hope to free ourselves from suffering. The bird’s negative situation was staying caged for a long time so mentally it thought it couldn’t fly away. When the cage was opened, it didn’t fly because it still thought it was caged – it had learned helplessness.

I’d like you to think of any situation in your life where you feel like there’s no hope for healing, recovery, or a solution. Don’t be afraid to mention the mental health struggles you may have. No shame or judgment here. Got them? Great! Have you resigned to the fate that there’s absolutely no way out of whatever issue you have? Which part of your struggle makes you believe that you can’t get yourself out of this situation? I believe you have your answers. Hold onto them as we dig deeper into the topic.

You may be experiencing learned helplessness if;
  • You feel completely helpless to take action in hard situations and believe there’s no solution
  • You easily give up or become pessimistic when things don’t work out
  • You use negative self-talk in bad situations – “I can’t do this” “I’m not smart enough” “I’ll just fail” “What’s the use of trying?” “Nothing works for me” 
  • You suffer from reoccurring stress and depression that leads to excessive worrying and bad health

The not-so-complicated science
We have neurons – nerve cells that transmit information through the brain and body. We have neural pathways – the connections between the neurons in our brains. These connections form a pattern in our brains. When you think of something for the first time, the connections in your brain form a new pattern. The more you think about the same thing, the more it solidifies in your brain and becomes a dominant thought.

Neural pathways are tied to our emotions and thoughts. If you flunked a math test once and it made you feel like a failure, the neural pathway in your brain will always associate math with failure which will make you believe that you’re bad at math – leaving you in a state of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness can contribute to the persistence of mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Because one feels like their conditions are untreatable – they may give up on trying to get better or see a therapist. The older you get, the harder it is to break free from learned helplessness but it’s not too late. Can old neural pathways be replaced by new ones? Absolutely yes! This means there is a way out of that rut you feel stuck in – you can unlearn.

Remember the small exercise we had where you unearthed your learned helplessness? Recall your answers. What is the learned helplessness that you’re dealing with?

1.Ask yourself, “What are the positive possibilities that could come out of this situation?” You already know what the negatives are so shift your mind to the good that could be there. Let’s say you’re in an abusive relationship and you feel helpless – the situation of an abusive partner is not likely to change – but your reaction to it can change since you control that part. What is the positive possibility of leaving the relationship? You being happy and finding peace of mind. The key is to replace the negative thought cycle with a much positive one. Always flip the coin of your helplessness. What lies on the other side?

2. Add “yet” at the end of your limiting self-talk. “I am not good at math…yet.” It leaves room for growth and eliminates the totality that you’re completely helpless. If it isn’t working out right now, you will try again until you get it right. You’re telling yourself that you will be good at something with a little more effort and resilience which prompts your brain to look for ways to make it happen. Also, practice positive self-talk by eliminating negative words like not, can’t, won’t, don’t, etc. “I am courageous” in place of “I am not afraid.”

What can you do differently next time? If you spiraled down a rabbit hole of anxiety, what can you do to make sure you don’t find yourself in that same place the next time it happens? You can try a coping mechanism like a breathing exercise or a grounding exercise. If you failed in something, you can learn from it and not repeat the same process next time. Train your mind to think that there is always a solution to every problem – because there is! And when you don’t find the solutions in yourself, talk to someone about it – friends, family, or a therapist.

Unlearning learned helplessness is a journey but one that’s rewarding because it has the potential to change your life. If you only take one thing from this article, let it be that the solutions are within you. Remember that learned helplessness is mainly about your reaction to a negative situation – not the negative situation itself. You may not have a lot you can do to change a situation but you have the power to react in a way that doesn’t limit your beliefs and thought processes. Allow yourself to fly out of that cage – your wings aren’t clipped – you can fly.

Learned helplessness can also affect relationships on many levels.  From work, to friendship to marriage it disrupts our ability to connect, communicate, and be assertive with the people in our lives.  Therapists are trained to help you find your power in all these areas of your life and to apply them successfully.

Therapists at Meridian Idaho Counseling have specializations in helping people to overcome anxiety, poor self-esteem, depression, and lack of motivation related to learned helpless We have a number of skilled therapists at Meridian Idaho Counseling who are trained in these areas and are more than happy to help you.  You can give us a call at (208) 803-5339 or email us to set up an appointment or to answer any questions you may have.