When a traumatic event happens once—humans are generally spurred into action by their biology—a huge release of adrenaline which makes you ready to fight, ready to act, and which sharpens memory of the event so you can remember it clearly to protect yourself from it in the future.
When traumatic acts are continually repeated, as they have become now for us with acts of domestic and international terrorism, mass shootings and violence, we have a different set of reactions. Our human physiology is built for efficiency. Traumatic events require a lot of energy from us and our brains and bodies tell us that we can’t afford that much energy and attention. So if trauma gets repeated-- instead of gearing up—we go numb. When a smoke alarm goes off in your house once, you pay attention—if it goes off every day, then you cut the wires so you can’t hear it anymore.
Going numb serves the important purpose of allowing us to go on with our lives, it is what allows soldiers to keep fighting, and survivors in war zones to keep living. It is what allows abused children to keep going to school. It keeps you from taking in each new act of violence. It protects you from the extremes of emotion that could affect your memory, your health and your safety. It is the emergency response system that your body automatically employs when trauma gets repeated—hunkering down so you can conserve energy.
Survival is important. But surviving traumatic events without being able to control what is happening or what you are enduring can lead to another psychological phenomena: learned helplessness. Learned helplessness was a term coined by Maier and Seligman (1967) about the impact of uncontrollable traumatic events. What they found in their research was that when you can’t control repeated traumatic events, you can become passive, and as Seligman describes, “come to believe that nothing you do will have any affect on the outcome, so why do anything?” Learned helplessness is the behavior of passively doing nothing, even when the possibility of action, escape or change in the traumatic experience is possible.
This is where we need to fight our biological autopilot that is telling us to just conserve our energy, sit tight, stay quiet and survive. This is an important biological gear that we have to save our lives, but it is also a gear that can keep us from changing what is broken, dangerous and actually within our control. Learned Helplessness comes from forgetting that we do actually have control. We can act, and not just passively accept the traumatic events.
The antidote to learned helplessness is action, it is taking control of what is in your control and working toward a safer and healthier situation. So rather than watching the news all day and lamenting another shooting. Do something to change the situation in any way that fits your values and integrity to create a safer more connected community and world. Learned helplessness is changed by starting to act. Small acts that can begin to remind all of us that we matter. That our actions can have an impact. That we don’t have to just sit passively by when bad things happen.
Turn off the television.
Write a letter.
- To an elected official about what you think needs to change in order to have a safer community. If you live in the US you live in a representative democracy and in order to make it work, you need to act: you need to vote and you need to let your elected officials know your viewpoints. Write or call the president, your governor, your congressional representative. Contact information for all elected officials, national and local
- Write thank you cards to the Orlando Police Department (100 S Hughey Ave, Orlando, FL 32801) or the Orlando Regional Medical Center (52 W Underwood St, Orlando, FL 32806) thanking the first responders and the medical personnel for their hard work and care.
- Write a letter of gratitude to a member of the armed services who is working on your behalf to fight terrorism. You can use this resource to write.
- Create a healthy dialogue in your community about creating safer and healthier communities. Kinder communities. More respectful communities. You can use this resource or this organization.
Do something kind.
- Do something kind for children, for the elderly, for first responders, for anyone: Do something. Bake a cake, mow a lawn, read a book out loud, donate clothing, volunteer with a troop, offer to make or bring dinner, no matter how big or small. Act with kindness.