Catch-22, learned helplessness, and doing a thing
How to get out of a hole
A few weeks ago, I strained my back one morning doing a twisty/stretchy/reach-y movement (that I won’t describe in more detail because it’s kind of embarrassing). Okay, I thought, I’ll take some Aleve, rest it for a few days, and it will get better. But it did not get better, and four days later, a few minutes after I got out of bed and fed the cat, I was Lamaze-breathing through excruciating pain.
WTH!!?? The pain was coming from the muscles just to the inside of my hip bones, like I was pregnant with a huge watermelon that was pulling on them.
I hobbled over to the couch and sat down with a big pillow behind my back, which, mercifully, alleviated the worst of the pain.
Part of me started to panic. A good-sized part, actually. I’ve been in that place with weird, intractable musculoskeletal pain before and I don’t want to go there again.
In 2008, I torqued my neck trying to learn a tennis serve. The muscle spasms in my neck later morphed into free-range pain radiating through my shoulder and upper back that took years to (mostly) resolve. Then in 2015, debilitating sciatica kept me from being able to sit, stand, or walk for stretches at a time over the course of fifteen months.
There were moments during each of those episodes when I felt completely defeated and helpless. I went to many, many doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, bodywork practitioners, you name it. Some helped temporarily, some made it worse, and most seemed to be stabbing in the dark as to what the underlying cause of my issues might be.
I felt like I’d fallen into a hole.
I’m going to feel like this forever circled in my thoughts. On the days when I was unable to do even the most basic tasks of caring for my family, like driving my daughter to school or making dinner, I felt completely worthless.
So when I sat there on the couch recovering my breath after this recent episode, it would have been easy to slip into that hole again.
But this time in addition to thoughts of “I’ve been here before,” came “and I got out of it.”
We recently watched the Catch-22 miniseries on Hulu, and although I’ve never read the book, I did remember watching the 1970 movie version. What I remembered most from the movie was how the Orr character kept crash-landing in his plane, but every time he made it back safe to the base. And (spoiler alert) you don’t find out until the end that he’s been intentionally practicing crash landing so he can escape the war and get to neutral Switzerland without being found out.
I felt like I’d crash-landed this ol’ body of mine a few times before and I’d learned some things about how to survive. As I sat on the couch I tried to remember as many as I could. What tools can I use to get out of this?
From one PT I learned the value of a high-quality ice pack. No piddly little freebie that’s a few inches square—I now keep an 8”x12” professional-grade ice pack stashed in the freezer. And if ice doesn’t work, try heat; in the middle of summer I’d almost forgotten my favorite microwaveable heat pack filled with rice and lavender.
From a Feldenkrais practitioner I learned to try different positions until you find one that is comfortable, or as comfortable you can get, and rest there. Otherwise you’re training your body to stay in pain. From an orthopedic physiatrist I saw only once I still had a few prescription Lidocaine patches. They were technically expired, but slapping one of those babies on my lower back when it later started spasming did help.
Another thing I learned on my own was how well my body reacts to floating in a sensory deprivation tank with super-saturated epsom salt water. (No, you do not turn into a simian or enter the Upside Down.) Now I book a float1 whenever I need to reset my central nervous system.
I did not know the term “learned helplessness” when I had those earlier fell-in-a-hole days, but I know now that’s what I was experiencing. Learned helplessness is when you have been repeatedly trying to get out of a bad situation and your brain switches from thinking this is attainable to thinking it is unattainable, and nothing you do is going to make any difference. Physiological changes occur in your brain chemistry and you basically sink into despair and stop trying. Emily and Amelia Nagoski have an excellent description of this in Chapter 4 of their breakthrough book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.”
When an animal [including a human] has learned helplessness, it goes straight past frustration right to the pit of despair … their central nervous system has learned that when they are suffering, nothing they can do will make a difference. They have learned they are helpless.
In Catch-22, Yossarian, the story’s main protagonist, tries in vain to get out of the war with his life and his sanity intact amid the absurdity of military bureaucracy and seeming meaninglessness of the war. He goes to anyone he can think of—the doctor, the chaplain, his friend who unexpectedly got promoted to Major—in increasingly desperate bids to achieve his goal, but he’s trapped, most notably by the titular catch-22.
In my case, I went to countless professionals to try to get out of my pain. Yossarian and I both fell into learned helplessness, heaping despair on top of the underlying problem. But we were both essentially outsourcing our agency, which only leads to more helplessness.
Fortunately, there is a scientifically verified way to unlearn helplessness, which I stumbled on by trial and error, and the Nagoskis call “Do a Thing.”
[W]hen learned helplessness has been induced [through] experience, you need to teach your nervous system that it’s not helpless. … You do something—and “something” is anything that isn’t nothing. … Reverse the effects of helplessness by creating a context where you can do a thing.
Physical activity is an ideal “thing,” which is one of the reasons why we often feel better after exercising, but if the thing you are trying to escape is also keeping you from physical activity, anything that uses your body, like finding a comfortable position, doing that one stretch you like, trying a heating pad, or floating in an isolation tank, can help reverse the effects of helplessness. Depending on your circumstances, cooking, making art, or doing something for someone else are also great things to try.
Catch-22’s Orr is also trying to get out of the war with the same goals as Yossarian, but he doesn’t feel helpless because he’s doing a thing.
It takes courage to do a thing, though, even if it isn’t as extreme as practicing crash-landing your plane. Because what if the thing you try doesn’t help? I’ve been there—not wanting to try because if it doesn’t work I think I will feel even more helpless. But doing something, even if it doesn't have the immediate effect you hoped for, does help in and of itself.2 You can always try a different thing later.
When I was dealing with the sciatica I remember a day when I was home alone, my family off to school and work, and I didn’t know what I would be capable of doing without being in pain. I’m going to make myself some oatmeal, I told myself, and then I’m going to give myself a gold star. That bowl of oatmeal gave me the biggest sense of accomplishment I’d had in days.
Another thing to be aware of is when you’re in that pit of despair, it can be easy to pile on judgment about feeling helpless. As the Nagoski’s state:
It’s likely that you’ve received the message that when you’re feeling overwhelmed with helplessness it’s because you just can’t be “rational,” you’re just overreacting, and the problem is your “mindset” or your weakness or just generally your fault. … It’s not true, and the people who say it is are gaslighting you. The truth is you learned helplessness from experiences of being helpless.
This is important. Your brain is reacting in a rational and scientifically verifiable way to your situation. Feeling helpless doesn’t have a value judgment attached to it. It’s just a feeling. Try Doing a Thing and see what happens.
As for me now? I got an appointment with my go-to PT for a week later (the one who eventually got to the root of my sciatica) and used as many tools as I could think of to get me through until then. Turns out I pulled my psoas and sprained some of my pelvic ligaments—no wonder it hurt! Now I’m on a slooooow path to recovery, which is trying my patience, but at least I have a plan. (And, having my husband take on extra duties while I’m healing definitely helps. Thanks, hon!)
What I’m Reading
After saying last month that I’m not really that into comics, I found myself reading two graphic nonfiction books. One is Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, which I haven't finished yet. The other was Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, which my daughter got me for my birthday. I absolutely loved this book. Jacob explores the messy bonds of family through the lens of growing up as a child of Indian immigrants in New Mexico in the ‘80s and being the mother of a biracial child in New York City in the 2010s. She takes us into uncomfortable conversations about colorism in Indian society and what it feels like to be a Person of Color in today’s America in a way that is so incisive, disarming, and witty that I couldn’t put it down. I particularly liked the cutout-style illustrations, which give it a scrapbook-meets-adult puppet show vibe.
So there you have it, my friends. I hope this issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. Have you experienced learned helplessness? If so, what helped you get out of it? And what are you reading? Any more graphic nonfiction I should know about? Drop a comment below—all respectful discussion is welcome. Would someone you know appreciate this issue? I’d love it if you forwarded it to them.
P.S. The news coming out of Afghanistan is heartbreaking, and women journalists are among the most at-risk populations in the country. Please consider donating to women journalists in need in Afghanistan through the International Women’s Media Foundation. The IWMF does amazing work year-round to support and protect female journalists around the world.
Floating is amazing. If you live within driving distance of Solana Beach, check out Float North County. Use the code lj-498869 in the Promotional Code box when booking online for $15 off your first float. Full disclosure I also get a $15 credit but I would recommend them even with no perks. Hard to describe the experience but totally worth it.
Learned helplessness is not the same as actual clinical depression, which is outside my sphere of knowledge. If nothing gets you out of the pit of despair, please contact a mental health professional.