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Could 'giving up' be the real threat to health?

Does our mood affect our immune system?

The short answer to this question appears to be yes. A research paper published in the journal of the ‘American Association for the advancement of science’ by Jean L. Marx stated that “A great deal of evidence shows that the two systems (mood and immune system) are inextricably interconnected”.

Numerous other studies have demonstrated a connection between our state of mind and what’s going on with our immune system. Now obviously we don’t want to make any unnecessary leaps, and state things such as being sad/happy causes/cures disease, as that hasn’t been proven, but mood definitely seems to interact with our immune system.

One study even showed how just talking about being lonely can even cause drops in measures such as blood pressure.

So, what’s this got to do with stress?

Whilst the link between stress and illness might seem like an obvious one, a direct causal link has never actually been proven, instead we have evidence of a connection. But just because A happens (stress) then B happens (illness/disease), does not prove that B was caused by A, but rather that there is likely a connection somewhere.

In this article I’m going to propose a different idea of how people who report feeling stressed in their lives may go on to develop health issues. This is an alternative idea to the popular theory about stress suppressing the immune system and leads to a completely different approach for managing wellbeing in life and the workplace.

An alternative hypothesis

A paper published in The Lancet journal in 1977 took 26 widowers and measured their immune profile at 2 and 6 weeks after bereavement. The bereaved men showed a difference in immune profile compared to the non-widowers in the study.

Professor of Psychology, Martin Seligman states that “widowers are several times more likely to die in the first 6 months following the death of their wives than at any other time”. Now this could be because they’re what some people call ‘chronically stressed’ by constantly thinking about their loss, and therefore impacting their immune systems, or one other possibility is that they’ve given up and are experiencing what Professor Seligman refers to as ‘Learned Helplessness’.

What exactly is learned helplessness?

Professor Seligman conducted some famous experiments in the 60’s and 70’s and came up with the theory of ‘Learned Helplessness’. He defines it in this way, “learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter”.

He conducted experiments on dogs (unfortunately) where he split them into three groups. Group 1 were exposed to escapable shocks. Group 2 to inescapable shocks, and group 3 were simply left alone. The next day they were all exposed to shocks that were easy to escape from, but the dogs who had been exposed to inescapable shocks the day before failed to respond. They simply gave up.

The same type of experiment was also done with rats, where increased rates of disease and death was found in the rats that gave up. The same with mice, with those that gave up showing an increased rate of tumour growth.

They also went on to conduct human experiments where they removed elements of control from elderly people (decision autonomy) in care homes and they witnessed an increased rate of deaths in those that had less control in their daily lives in the care homes versus those given more control.

Giving up seems to take its toll on health

In giving an explanation of the phenomenon he had witnessed in the dogs, Professor Seligman said “the symptoms of learned helplessness could be produced in several ways. Defeat and failure generated the same symptoms as uncontrollable events”. So, when life throws difficulty our way some of us respond by giving up.

Its this giving up stage that seems to trigger the negative health events that can follow, as in each of the recorded experiments those that were given an option to control their environment didn’t see any adverse health effects.

Professor Seligman believes that animals with learned helplessness share lots of psychological features with depressed people. This phenomenon has been replicated in cats, dogs, rodents, fish, primates, insects, and as already mentioned humans.

He talks about how animals lose interest in grooming themselves, sexual activity, food, sleep loss, stop competing for food, and become avoidant. He thinks that motivation disappears, and the animal or person begins to believe there’s nothing they can do about their situation, and simply resign themselves.

Examples from the real world

I have to be careful here not to imply causation where we simply see correlation, but there are countless examples of resignation being connected with poor health outcomes. Think of the newly retired, the homeless, the unemployed, those on long term sick, those overwhelmed at work, and those bored and trapped in their work.

An evolutionarily wise mechanism

Stress researcher and author Angela Patmore states that “resignation, or learned helplessness to give it its scientific name, is extremely useful to a prey animal about to be torn to pieces by a predator. This response floods the brain with opiate like substances to deaden the fear and pain of impending slaughter. It also shuts off the immune system, which is no longer required”.

So, could this learned helplessness that is clearly demonstrated in animals and human be responsible for the negative health outcomes that we so often blame on stress? Whilst I’m not saying it definitely is, I feel there’s a good case to be made for it.

What if failure, social defeat, boredom, listlessness, loss, rejection, harassment are behind the helplessness that leads to a chain of morbid health events sometimes occurring in the human body?

Another human experiment on resignation

Professor Seligman and a student named Donald Hiroto, carried out an experiment with 96 students. They divided them into 3 groups, and exposed the first group to a noise where they had the ability to switch it off (escapable), the second group to a noise that couldn’t be turned off (inescapable), and the final group weren’t exposed to anything at all.

They found that when they took the 96 students into a new room and exposed them to a sound that was easy to turn off, those that had been exposed to an uncontrollable sound in the first room just sat there and didn’t even try, even though the sound was easily turned off by the other two groups. They simply gave up.

The above experiment describes how a group gave up when exposed to something relatively minor such as a noise, but what if they were exposed to uncontrollable such as failure, harassment, bullying, bereavement, rejection? It also seems that those in the experiments generalised the giving up habit and carried it from one scenario to the next.

Not every animal or person succumbs to this

People vary in how they respond to life’s ups and downs. The experiments mentioned above highlighted one curiosity, and that was that not everybody is susceptible to learned helplessness.

They found that only 2 in every 3 humans or animals will be subject to it. So, what is it about those 1 in every 3 that is buffered against it, what prevents them from giving up hope like the others do?

Victor Frankl, the neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps during the holocaust and wrote the famous book ‘Man’s search for meaning’, famously said “everything can be taken from a man but one thing. The last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

So maybe some people, like Dr Frankl when faced with what feels like unwinnable situations, as he was in concentration camps, choose to keep going and persevere. Maybe it comes down to a sense of hope that things will improve, that varies amongst us?

A far-fetched alternative theory?

Professor Seligman famously said that “science often gets a lot of mileage out of the far-fetched”, and I think that the stress response/FFF causing illness is far more far-fetched and takes much more of a stretch of the imagination, than the proven effect that mood has on our immune system, and how many of those that give up also give up immune strength and function.

Both ends of the scale carry risk

The key factor here is that we know 100% that resignation/giving up can have a negative impact on the immune system both in humans and animals, and that individuals can give up at both ends of the overwhelm scale, ie: from not enough happening (boredom) to too much happening (overwhelm).

Which of the two explanations you decide makes the most sense to you will lead to different solutions? If you’re convinced by the standard stress-related illness/disease model, then clearly encouraging employees to learn how to relax to switch off their fight or flight makes the most sense.

Whereas if you’re more convinced by the learned helplessness/resignation model, then instilling a sense of hope in struggling employees makes the most sense. Coaching employees to improve their situation and struggles, and look for a way out, and a way to improve their situation will instil hope, the antidote to hopeless or helplessness.


Jonathan Pittam

Mental Health Educator


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