I recently came across an interesting psychological concept that explains a lot about the mindset of a person living with a health condition like tinnitus.
It goes like this:
When a person or an animal is repeatedly subjected to a terrible situation that they think they can’t escape or control, they eventually stop trying, even if escape suddenly becomes possible.
This psychological phenomenon is called learned helplessness, and when it comes to tinnitus, it offers an explanation of why so many people feel so hopeless.
Dr. Martin Seligman and his dogs:
It all started back in 1967 when a psychologist named Martin Seligman first discovered the concept of learned helplessness in a famous (and morally horrible), experiment with dogs.
Seligman placed his dogs into two groups. One group of dogs were subjected to random electric shocks immediately following an audible tone. There was nothing they could do to stop it.
They were classically conditioned to expect the shock any time they heard the tone. The other group of dogs were not conditioned in this way. They were the control group.
Seligman then placed both groups of dogs into a special box with two compartments separated by a wall that the dogs could easily jump over. One side of the box was safe, the other side, where Seligman put the dogs, was electrified and randomly shocked the dogs.
All they had to do to escape, was to jump over the wall to safety.
The control group – the dogs that had not been conditioned to endure electric shocks – jumped over the wall right away.
But the dogs that had previously learned that there was nothing they could do to prevent the shocks, didn’t even try to escape. They just laid down and endured the pain because they had previously learned the shocks were random and outside their control.
The dogs had learned helplessness and believed their situation to be hopeless. They couldn’t even see the opportunity for escape when it was presented. Escape was unimaginable.
Learned Helplessness and Tinnitus:
When you live with an incurable health condition like tinnitus, it can feel like you’re trapped in a kind of living hell with no escape or any sort of control over your situation.
Tinnitus is a complicated condition and no two people respond to any given “treatment” in the exact same way. It also doesn’t help that many doctors tell their patients that there is nothing they can do, that they just have to live with it.
Who wouldn’t feel powerless in a situation like that?
It’s no wonder so many people feel hopeless.
But It’s easy to see how a concept like learned helplessness might apply here.
A tinnitus sufferer can simply give up, like Seligman’s dogs, and feel entirely hopeless, when in fact, there may be a great number of options available to them.
It’s important understand that this is happening, and to recognize these thought patterns for what they are.
Because there is a difference between accepting your circumstances and giving up. The former allows for hope and action, the latter for depression and despair.
Fortunately, once you understand that the concept of learned helplessness is at play, you can do something about it.
According to Seligman, the opposite of learned helplessness is learned optimism.
In other words, pessimists who have learned helplessness, can learn to be optimists by changing the way they think about adversity.
Seligman explains that you can use the ABC model of Adversity, created by psychologist Albert Ellis, to learn optimism.
(A) is for Adversity and represents the event that has occurred.
(The sudden onset of tinnitus.)
(B) is for Belief or how we interpret the adversity and what we decide that it means.
(Nothing is working. It’s too loud for anything help. I can’t possibly tune it out. There is nothing I can do to improve.)
(C) is for Consequences – the feelings and actions that result from our belief.
(Hopelessness, anger, depression, despair, and inaction.)
Seligman, however, adds a D and E to the model.
(D) is for disputation or generating counter-evidence to any negative beliefs, causes, or implications.
(There is no cure for tinnitus, but habituation is possible. I can get to a place where it stops bothering me. I didn’t choose to have tinnitus, but I can still make decisions. I am not powerless.)
(E) which stands for Energization or the practice of celebrating the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment and control that comes from dispelling negative beliefs.
(Gratitude, enjoying moments where it’s not bothersome, appreciating small wins, trying new treatment strategies.)
It takes time and practice for this to be effective, but by following this structured way of thinking, you can escape the pitfalls of learned helplessness and take back your sense of control in an otherwise terrible situation.
Tinnitus may be difficult to live with, but there is so much hope. There is always some new action to take or new treatment you can try to improve your situation.
You didn’t choose to have tinnitus, but you are also never powerless. You have far more control over your life than you may have realized.
So, the next time you’re feeling hopeless, ask yourself, “Is there truly nothing I can do to improve my situation in some small but meaningful way? Is there actually no hope at all? Or have I just learned helplessness?”