The Meadows Blog

Monday, 19 June 2017 08:59

From Learned Helplessness to Learned Optimism

Trauma Conference Trauma Conference

The Importance of Active Repair in Healing from Trauma

Tian Dayton, Ph.D., TEP
Trauma can leave us feeling helpless in the face of our own lives, our own days, our own relationships. “Learned helplessness,” a term coined by psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, describes an aspect of trauma akin to giving up. We learn the negative lesson that no matter what we do, we cannot seem to make a difference in the lives of those we love and we can generalize that feeling to other areas of our lives as well. But Seligman who studied this phenomenon began to ask the question, ‘if we can learn how to be helpless then why can’t we also learn how to be optimistic?’

In the case of natural disasters, repair can begin almost immediately says Rob Anda, researcher of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, however, he points out that adverse childhood experiences, which he finds are very common, tend to roll out over years and even generations. Finding positive ways of addressing these less than optimal experiences is what moves survivors to thrivers. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Senior Fellow of The Meadows, provides a poignant description from his trip with FEMA in 1989 to aid victims of Hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico as to how important it is to act on one’s own behalf to make things better, even small attempts that head us in a positive direction, can make the difference between developing learned helplessness and learned optimism or having at least some sense of personal agency in effecting our own quality of life.

“I arrived,” describes Dr. van der Kolk, “in the middle of this devastation, and what I saw were lots and lots of people working with each other, actively putting their lives back together—carrying lumber, rebuilding houses and shops, cleaning up, repairing things.”

But the FEMA officials immediately told everybody to cease and desist until assorted bureaucracies could formally assess the damage, establish reimbursement formulas, and organize financial aid and loans. Everything came to a halt. “People were suddenly forced to sit still in the middle of their disaster and do nothing,” Dr. van der Kolk remembers. “Very quickly, an enormous amount of violence broke out—rioting, looting, assault. All this energy mobilized by the disaster, which had gone into a flurry of rebuilding and recovery activity, now was turned on everybody else. It was one of the first times I saw very vividly how important it is for people to overcome their sense of helplessness after a trauma by actively doing something. Preventing people from moving when something terrible happens, that’s one of the things that makes trauma a trauma.”

Pondering this striking lesson, Dr. van der Kolk wondered if perhaps the most damaging aspect of trauma wasn’t necessarily the awfulness of it, but the feeling of powerlessness in the face of it; the experience of being unable to escape or fight or have any impact on what was happening. “The brain is an action organ,” he says, “and as it matures, it’s increasingly characterized by the formation of patterns and schemas geared to promoting action. People are physically organized to respond to things that happen to them with actions that change the situation.” But when people are traumatized, and can’t do anything to stop it or reverse it or correct it, “they freeze, explode, or engage in irrelevant actions,” he adds. Then, to tame their disorganized, chaotic physiological systems, they start drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in violence like the looting and assault that took place after Hurricane Hugo. If they can’t reestablish their physical efficacy as a biological organism and recreate a sense of safety, they often develop PTSD. (Wylie, 2004, p. 5)

Relational trauma and our need to find ways of restoring a personal sense of agency and an ability to take care of ourselves bear some resemblance to other kinds of traumas. We all need to feel we have some way to get out of circumstances that are weighing us down, to find ways of mobilizing our own sense of forward movement, and find some sense of relief and hope that things will get better. We need a sense of a better future.

As the addictions field has matured over the past four decades, it has come to understand the high cost of growing up in homes with parental addictions and co-occurring forms of abuse and/or neglect. Attention to families and children is growing along with an awareness that everyone in an alcoholic family system may need treatment to get over the traumatizing effects of living with the shame, secrecy, and desperation that are part of living with active addiction. Through experiential models of therapy, those who have had trauma in the home can engage in an active process of repair. Those of us who work in the addictions field see clearly how this works for addicts who become active in treatment and AA, those who change their lives experientially and with the support of others who are walking the same path. Both the addicts and the children and spouses of addicts in this active process of repair are also oftentimes treating their PTSD. Many addicts are themselves using substances and behaviors to medicate pain that they feel unable to face and those who have also grown up with addiction carry years and even decades of pain that is part and parcel of the crazy-making dynamics that surround addiction. Thus the wheel of addiction makes another sinister turn through another generation.

Facing this kind of relational trauma, that sense of dislocation both intrapersonally and interpersonally from one’s own inner world and network of comfortable relationships is the work of recovery. The constantly alternating family dynamics that make everyone feel that they are living on an emotional see-saw, make everyone live on the edge of their seats, characterizes the experience of the child or spouse of addicts. One moment life feels pretty good then suddenly and often without warning the bottom falls out and everyone snaps back into his or her own heads. They run for safety, huddle together like soldiers in a foxhole with the nearest and most available family members (pets included) whether or not their closeness is nourishing, and in the long run, they flee, fight or simply shut down and wait for things to get better. Living around this constant anxiety mobilizes people’s survival instincts and makes it difficult for both giving and receiving the kind of steady and attuned support that is so comforting to count on in a family. That is what gets lost, that feeling that you can count on those you love. And unfortunately, those who live with this all too often internalize the feeling that they are not valuable enough to be well cared for.

Actively addressing this kind of emotional and psychological fallout from living with addiction is in itself healing. The feeling that we can do something to help ourselves whether or not anyone in our family system gets help is freeing and restoring of our trust in life’s ability to rebuild itself. Treatment is the first step in that direction, and after treatment, outpatient groups and twelve-step programs along with developing new interests, hobbies and friends are what can turn learned helplessness into learned optimism. Addiction needn’t become a legacy, in fact, it can motivate us to become better, deeper and more human; it can be the catalyst for life-long growth.

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