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  • Matt Gillespie, M.A., RP, C.C.C.,

Learned Helplessness

“In these uncertain and trying times…” If you’re anything like me, over the last few weeks you’ve likely received dozens of emails from every company you’ve ever provided with your contact information discussing their handling of the COVID-19 virus. If you’re even more like me, you probably stopped reading those emails around line two because you had no intention of making any unnecessary trips during a pandemic. Open up any news app on your phone and you’ll almost definitely see some record being broken regarding the virus, or concerns about return to school or work, or projected timelines for reopening businesses and public spaces. As I’m sure you’re acutely aware, it is almost impossible to utilize any form of technology without some type of update or viral video (pun intended). I’ll go on the record and say that I believe in the importance of preventative measures and simple precautions. These include wearing masks in public spaces, social distancing, working from home when possible, avoiding leaving the house with positive symptoms associated with the virus, and, in general, maintaining an awareness of your own health and wellness. Regarding the virus, what I have seen has been largely unremarkable; when I’ve had to make my way into grocery stores or public spaces, most people seem to be respectfully minding the new rules, keeping their distance, and maintaining effective boundaries. However, these calm, uneventful outings are rarely shown in the media, for the main reason that they are not attention-grabbing. Which link would you be more likely to click: “Grocery shoppers follow clearly posted rules and public space etiquette” or “Anti-mask protestors incite riot at costume shop”? Media outlets focus on what news will sell, so the more outrageous the headlines, the more absurd and unbelievable the subject matter, the more people are likely to read. Sadly, this means that the vast majority of public outings, the ones where nothing eventful happens, are ignored, creating a false sense of chaos and insecurity. In these uncertain and trying times (oops), this fuels the fire of our collective fear. Living in Ontario, this type of public health crisis is totally new for seemingly everyone, and despite the abundance of celebrities posting videos assuring us that “we are all in this together,” our individual experiences vary greatly. Depending on your age, type of work, position in school, whether or not you have children, or access to a car, or any number of other factors, you’re likely dealing with your own unique landscape here. Personally, during this pandemic I spent about six weeks in the hospital for something completely unrelated to the virus, but I had to undergo extensive screening protocols and quarantine to ensure my and others’ health. What became normal for me is likely very different than what has become normal for you, and vice versa. Even though this is a societal issue, we all have to make our own choices based on our unique set of circumstances. As I’ve learned over the past few months, and you may have experienced something similar, I am very much a homebody. I enjoy my time alone, and when I do have to go out I plan ahead to make sure I am making the most out of any trip. However, I’ve also learned that, now more than ever, it is increasingly easy to use public health concerns to justify procrastination, avoidance, and isolation. Don’t feel like stopping at the grocery store on the way home from work? “Not during a pandemic!” Invited to go out for dinner but you’d rather stay home where Netflix lives? “It’s safer to handle and prepare my own food for now.” Don’t feel like tackling the ever-growing mountain of laundry in your closet? “I’m not going anywhere anyway, so why do I need to wash my clothes today?” For days, weeks, months, we’ve been bombarded with images and headlines that all speak to the same basic message: Do not leave your home if you can avoid it. This message has become instilled into everyday actions, adding an extra layer to any decision: is it safe? While this is a genuine issue, my concern is that this has created intangible prison bars on the spaces we have designated safe, creating a sense of tension and insecurity any time we venture out of these safe zones. There is a concept that most first year psychology students study called Learned Helplessness. Boiled down, the theory states that once we determine that our actions will not produce any meaningful gains, we stop trying to improve our situation. The concept was initially studied using mice in a cage with an electrified floor. A light would turn on, and a few seconds later a shock would travel through the floor, giving the mice just enough time to jump onto a raised ledge to avoid the discomfort. However, the researchers then incrementally raised the ledge, until it was too high for the mice to reach. Once they had determined that their effort would be wasted, the mice stopped trying to jump onto the ledge when they saw the light come on, and simply waited for the shock. The next step the researchers took was to slowly lower the ledge until it was well within the mice’s ability to reach. Interestingly, the mice continued to ignore the ledge and to accept the shock. They had already determined that their situation could not be improved, and selectively ignored any evidence to the contrary. My concern is that the more time we spend at home, the stronger the association becomes between isolation and safety; conversely, the stronger the inherent association becomes between leaving home and putting oneself in danger. While we may not vocalize it or consciously make this connection, every time we make a decision to stay home, the belief insidiously grows. As businesses and public spaces quickly shut down, our options for social engagement became fewer and farther between. However, as we enter new phases of social reintegration, our options are slowly returning to a pre-COVID level, but we must now contend with new fears, both internal and external. As a thought experiment, take some time to reflect on your motivations to make the hundreds of decisions you face on a daily basis. Whether it involves making plans to see friends or family, completing errands, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy, rather than relying on your initial gut reaction, take a few moments to think about why you want either to engage in or to avoid these activities. While there are certainly things to be concerned about at the moment, with a few relatively simple precautions many activities are still safe options. In other words stay safe, but keep in mind the current situation is only temporary, and things can still continue to improve.

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