PTSD, Emotional Cages & Learned Helplessness

PTSD, Emotional Cages & Learned Helplessness

Trauma, PTSD & Learned HelplessnessTrauma is virtually inevitable. It’s enormously helpful to understand how tragedy, loss or victimization imprints on our mind and body.

When we experience trauma, we become acutely aware that we are not in control. 

Childhood trauma is particularly insidious. A child is already dependent, and unfortunately the most common childhood adverse experiences are inflicted by family members.

In the midst of the trauma, the body is naturally flooded with fight, flight or freeze hormones. But when trauma results in Post Trauma​tic Stress Disorder, stress hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine continue to flow after the danger has passed. Cortisol, the stress hormone that actually cues the body to calm down, does not. 

Back in the 1960’s, Martin Seligman and other researchers identified the concept of learned helplessness (Dog lovers, brace yourself)​. After administering painful shocks to half of a group of dogs locked in cages, they then opened the doors. The dogs who were not shocked immediately escaped their confinement. The dogs who were shocked did not. They lay cowering in the corner, defecating.

The traumatized dogs had to be physically dragged out of their cages repeatedly before they accepted that they could actually escape.

Trauma, especially when experienced repeatedly, such as in cases of verbal, physical or sexual abuse, can lead to being mentally and emotionally trapped in that cage, always on alert for the next seemingly inevitable shock. Unconsciously, we can even reenact the trauma in a futile attempt to regain control, and our freedom.

One of my clients is a bright, educated and loving mother, but having repeatedly experienced sexual abuse as a child, she consistently finds her way back. Well into adulthood, she’s been victimized by at least a dozen men. Each time, she blamed herself more, lost a little more hope, until an attempt to end her life led to treatment.

It’s crazy-making to not understand why. Why do we return to self-destructive behavior, over and over again? Why do we cower in the cage, defecating on ourselves even while the door stands open?! And let’s be honest, most of us are trapped in some kind of irrational, painful pattern of behavior, even without traumatic roots. 

The most common question in therapy sessions: Why can’t I just stop? 

These traps are deeply embedded. We need the help of others to pull us out of the cage until we can see the way out for ourselves once again. 

The concept of the Resiliency Field Trip isn’t just about building stress resilience so that we can weather life’s coming shocks, it’s a process of being gently dragged out of our self-limiting beliefs, our own learned helplessness, so that we can rewire our minds and our bodies.

Look for the opportunities to test the cage walls; to feel around for the open door that’s just outside of your current perspective. 

Create some intentional, productive discomfort.

If that feels like too great a task, seek out the right therapist for you to help drag you out of that cage so that you can see the way. 

  1. Thanks, DB40!! My own therapist has to get me unstuck pretty frequently, and it’s so incredibly valuable, even just in terms of my productivity and ability to prioritize my life.

  2. Just love your writing, Emily.

    I keep coming back to my therapist as often, I find myself stuck. She’s great at getting me to see that change is possible.

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