Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Learned Helplessness

Now that I'm getting used to not being in pain all the time, I feel kind of like a wimp when I am in pain.  I overdo it, I hurt the next day, and I don't feel like braving it and carrying on like nothing is going on.

What I previously thought of as pain tolerance or grit may actually have been a form of learned helplessness.  Learned helplessness is often discussed in relationship to mental illness, but I think it also applies to physical illness, and our mental reaction to physical illness.

Constant pain causes the sufferer to expect pain in life, and turn to coping mechanisms to deal with pain rather than seek the source of each individual pain and try to resolve it.  One of my biggest issues when I had fibromyalgia was I generally didn't notice I was injured until I'd been injured several days and had aggravated the injury.  I've been mostly healthy the last two years, and I'm still struggling to connect the dots between cause and effect with regard to body pain.

My shoulder hurts today because I tore apart a round bale yesterday.  I used the billhook with my right arm, and I also pulled the wagon uphill with my right arm.  My right shoulder has a right to be sore, and if I continue this work tonight I should expect it to hurt more.  Learned helplessness says "pain is normal, go do what needs doing."  Normal rational thought says "the way I did that yesterday caused me pain, I should change the way I do that if I have to do it again."  (I do have to do it again tonight, we're expecting a snow storm, and the open bale is vulnerable to the weather.  But perhaps I can distribute the work more evenly across both shoulders tonight.)

Learned helplessness also says not to bother treating the sore shoulder.  No matter what you do it will still hurt, so why waste the energy and bring yourself down by dwelling on your pain?  Normal rational thought says that if I do my physical therapy I'll be in better shape tonight to tackle that bale again.

For a long time I lived in learned helplessness, and it took some big revelations and a long time talking with people that had overcome different issues to learn that I did have some control over my situation and could make progress out of the hole I was in.  The more progress I made the more effort I was willing to put into it, and a positive snowball got me out.

I don't think learned helplessness is a flaw in the human psyche.  What if your situation really is not controllable by you?  Should a person who is in constant pain devote all their energy to constantly finding a cure, or should they save some energy to actually have a life despite the pain?  If you sit on a tack you need to devote all your immediate energy to standing up, but if you had a wound in the same spot causing the same pain, you'd need to just cope while it healed.  I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, that we need to have enough hope to keep looking for answers, but allow our learned helplessness to help us tune out that drive to escape and have a life while we're looking for answers.