Diabetes and Learned Helplessness

We’ve all felt helpless at times living with diabetes. When our numbers behave erratically and we can’t figure out why; when it seems like every solution we try just doesn’t quite work out. Diabetes isn’t a simple disease to manage, and its combination of unpredictable twists and turns, potentially serious consequences down the line, and nonstop need for attention can lead to a very overwhelming psychological hole — learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness, as the name implies, refers to a phenomenon where we start to project failure onto every decision; where we start to overthink every step; and where we start to give away the power of leadership in our own lives. It’s called LEARNED helplessness because it is, in fact, a learned behavioral response. It is a distinct feeling from anger, or frustration, which can often arise when things aren’t going well for us. It’s also not the same as feeling sad about how things are going. From my days as a therapist, I came to see learned helplessness as being primarily defined by two things — a go-to habit of collapsing, and negative future projecting.


Let’s unpack each of these separately. We’ll start with the first, the habit of collapsing. Have you ever had a friend or family member who just can’t seem to “step up to the plate”? When difficult situations arise, they immediately shrink down and give up — before they’ve even taken a moment to think objectively or assess their options. Even when obvious small steps forward present themselves, they choose to label their situation “hopeless” and just collapse. When a situation calls for renewed commitment and hard work, they choose what looks to the outside world to be laziness.

Well, they aren’t being lazy — they’re in a state of learned helplessness. They’re simply overwhelmed by most of the challenges they face. And because they feel such powerlessness, they choose inaction. They choose inaction because it’s less painful than trying to change things only to fail at that, too. It’s a nasty cycle, and it’s propelled forward by the second defining trait of learned helplessness, negative projections for the future.

If I told you the following, what would you do?

“There’s no hope, there’s no solution to this problem. No matter what you do, it simply cannot change and you’re going to end up right back here in the same place. Now, go take action.”

You’d probably tell me to go away, or something along those lines with a few choice words thrown in that we can’t print here. It’s a ridiculous statement! If there is literally NO way to change the future, why on earth would you put in effort to make that future better? In fact, if the future really IS utterly unchangeable, beyond any hope of improvement, taking any action on our part would be silly. It would simply be wasted energy. And it would be potentially very hurtful. Why would we raise up hope if we KNOW that hope will prove false? We’re essentially just asking to be hurt!

As you can see, if all future projections are inevitably negative, and if the habit of collapsing has been built up over the years to the point that it’s become an automatic behavioral response, a person can find herself buried in a very deep hole with no power to get out. Climbing out of a psychological hole takes effort just the way climbing out of a physical hole would. It takes SUSTAINED effort. It takes creative thinking. It takes planning and strategy. But above all, it requires that the individual have some vestige of hope that climbing out of that hole IS possible.

How to address learned helplessness
So here’s the tricky part — how do you address learned helplessness when it’s so good at taking away your power, motivation, and hope? It’s like a virus that primarily attacks the only cells that have the capacity to fight the virus. Once they’re gone, the virus can just run free and take out everything. Learned helplessness is the same way — once it defeats hope, completely takes away future possibilities, and instills the habit of collapsing, it can really take us out!

First and foremost, we have to learn how to recognize the state of learned helplessness. As the saying goes, you can’t get better until you admit or identify the problem. Luckily, we can often predict when it will show up. In our lives with diabetes, it’s going to show up when our management regimen isn’t working well. So the minute we feel that frustration coming on, we can also note “look out for learned helplessness.” That can be a big help, because that “learned helplessness” hole has to be dug out first. If we see the hole just starting, we can stop it. If we haven’t fallen in yet, we haven’t given up our power and we haven’t lost hope in the future. We might be upset, sad, or angry, but we still have power.

Second, we need to practice letting go of comfort and practice facing our pain. A big part of what causes us to choose the habit of “collapse” is the pain involved in facing a big challenge. Directly facing our challenges takes a lot of courage and it’s not fun. But it’s necessary. The funny thing is, when we manage to drop our attachment to comfort and our aversion to pain, the pain itself seems to shrink down. A lot of the turmoil isn’t cause by the situation itself, but by our desperate aversion to the situation. Once you let go of that push-pull antagonism, you might be surprised what you can handle.

Finally, if you find yourself IN the hole, what can you do? You’ve still got choices here, but it’s going to be harder than if you catch yourself early. If you find yourself completely buried, you might be falling into depression. If you feel this kind of intense hopelessness, you need to seek help. See a therapist; rely on friends and family. Depression is serious, and sometimes we need help outside of ourselves to climb back out. There’s no shame in asking for help — it’s something we all need from time to time. If you’re in the hole but you can see that sliver of daylight in your calmer, clearer moments (and we often do, only to ignore that sliver because the idea of climbing toward it and then failing is just too painful, and we’re just too comfortable choosing to collapse), it’s time for some tough self-love. Don’t give yourself excuses to avoid working toward that light. If you catch yourself collapsing, stop yourself and demand of yourself that you choose a proactive path forward. Have the courage to face your pain.

How you face it is a personal choice. Some people meditate, some people exercise; some people take strength from God, others take strength from a humanist perspective. Regardless of your chosen route or label, the point is to gather your resources, call on forces both internal and external, and use them to face your pain. It’s not easy. You might feel worse before you start to feel better, but it’s the first step out of that hole and it’s worth taking.

Brief bursts of exercise may help reverse hypoglycemia unawareness, according to a new animal study. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.