Stress Hardiness vs. Helplessness

by Joseph Brady

Watch the video

The molecular biology of mind/body healing. A talk by Herbert Bensen founder of the Mind/body  clinic at Harvard Medical School and author of The Relaxation Response.

Life is change, and how we cope with change determines
if we thrive on it or if we are overcome by it. Stress Hardiness vs. Helplessness is a learned response and we can take control of how we face stress. As we age, change quickly accelerates. Friends pass away, children grow up, once easy tasks become increasingly difficult. Yet when we look around at the many people that experience these same changes, some people seem to thrive on those changes while others seem to buried by them.

Stress Hardiness Can Be Learned

Dr. Susan Kobasa, et al. found that people involved in a great deal of change and stress in their lives can still thrive and not suffer physical ailments if they possess three characteristics:

  • Commitment, a sense of being involved in life as opposed to being alienated by it;
  • Control over the changes in their lives (the opposite of helplessness);
  • Challenge – viewing change as a challenge instead of as a problem.

She found in her studies that people’ who possess those three qualities commitment, control and challenge – tend to do much better when faced with the changes that occur as people get older.

Helplessness Is Also Learned

Unfortunately, there are many aspects of the aging process and many social aspects of aging in our society that contribute to feelings of victimization and helplessness. The essence of the feelings of being a victim in life is basically one of not having control over the world that we live in. Feelings of being out of control of one’s life begin with the very thoughts that we think to ourselves moment by moment all day long.

You Can Change Your Mind

In experiments using cognitive therapy, changing negative thinking patterns is effective in relieving two-thirds of the depression experienced by older adults by-eliminating mindless ruminations about past regrets and future fears, and replacing those thoughts with strong positive thinking. One of the most important discoveries in psychology in the last 30 years is the discovery that the ego has a natural tendency to use internal dialogue (that little voice inside our heads that talks to us all day long) to think about the nearest problem. In an undisciplined, untrained mind, the mind and the ego itself will naturally gravitate toward the nearest problem. Unless people learn to
deliberately think about those things that they wish to think about, that they enjoy thinking about, the mind itself will naturally gravitate toward an endless series of one damn thin after another. Its job in survival is to focus on whatever the nearest problem is, so that the brain will
normally try to focus on problems rather than solutions. To
overcome feelings of being a victim, people need to learn to deliberately think about those things that they enjoy thinking about, think about those constructive things that can be used to change the problem at hand.

It Takes Effort to be Happy

We used to think that people who had a good, strong positive attitude were somehow different or lucky than those people who were constantly thinking about negative things and getting down on themselves. Recent scientific studies have shown that this is not true, that those people who have a good, strong positive attitude work very hard at having a good, strong positive attitude, and that it takes just as much energy to be a positive person as it does to be a negative one. The difference is that positive thoughts lead to feelings of strength and competence, where negative thinking leads to feeling like a victim and feeling as if life is out of control. When events are out of our control we feel helpless. The state of believing we are helpless, even if it is not true, leads to depression, illness and sudden death in people and in experimental animals. In one recent experiment it was found that rats that displayed helplessness also ended up depleted in the hormone norepinephrine, and that those animals that were depleted in norepinephrine (which is also known as the happiness and contentedness hormone) showed both signs of helplessness and depression.

Helplessness vs. Hardiness and Survival

Helplessness and survival are very much linked. In one classic psychology experiment, a normal rat will swim about 60 hours before becoming exhausted. Yet when rats are held down on a table and made to feel helpless before being put in the water survive for as little as 30minutes. When rats are held down on the table and made to squirm around, but at the last minute are allowed to squirm free of their own ability so that they think they are in control of the situation, they survive for up to 60 hours. The difference of 30 minutes to 60 hours worth of survival time is the difference between feeling helpless or in control of the situation.

In human beings, this results in the fact that one year after a major trauma, there is a marked increase in the risk of death. For example, in the six months after the death of a spouse, there is a dramatic rise in the risk of death. Depression does not cause disease, but it can decrease the body’s ability to contend with disease.

Take Control and Get Involved

When it comes to older adults, the question remains: In the face of all those changes taking place as people get older, how does one maintain feelings of control over their lives instead of feeling like a victim? A number of things can be done. It helps to be around other people (attending classes, taking advantage of volunteer opportunities, joining self-help groups) enable us to see that other people have similar problems and have found ways to gain control over those problems instead of becoming a victim. Church groups or enjoying family activities can help. Even right down to access to professional counseling becomes extremely important. The worst thing that someone can do is sit around their home all day long staring at the walls waiting for help to come. The only people who come to visit you in your home all by yourself like that are burglars. To make new friends and see how other people seize control of their lives, you need to be with other people. Control over your life is not something other people give to you. Control over your own life is something that you seize for yourself. When you look at those older adults who have seized control over their lives, you find a remarkable capacity to continue to make meaningful contributions to our society. It is only in those older adults who give up in the face of adversity that you see the tragic deterioration.

Change Your Mind and Alter Your Destiny

Basically, it comes down to a question of choice. People can choose whether they are going to look at the positive side of things or the negative side of things. An old Chinese proverb states that if you’re standing on the top of a mountain, you can stand on the dark side where the sun doesn’t shine or you can cross over the ridge a few steps to the sunny side of the mountain where the sun shines. By taking those few steps and altering your perspective, you alter your destiny. This is holding to be true in that you can find many older adults with severe problems and limitations who overcome those problems and limitations and continue to make a meaningful contribution to the world•around them. By doing so, they do themselves a favor by boosting their own immune systems by maintaining a positive attitude of control over their lives rather than a negative attitude. It takes just as much energy to sit around being depressed all the time as it does to have a good, strong positive attitude.
When we retire, we have the greatest opportunity in our lives to make a positive change in the world. We need to find what we believe in and pursue it. As Dale Carnegie said “Any damn fool can sit back, criticize, condemn and complain, and most fools do.”

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