‘It’s okay to iso-struggle’ by Counsellor Matt


I put out the call to members of our team for their insights into how to manage your mental health during an unprecedented change in everyday life, that we are seeing now because of the Coronavirus. NicolaMaureen, Vanessa and Zoe answered the call. This time it’s Matt stepping up to the plate with a proposition that we go easy on ourselves and not expect to be coping perfectly. Please welcome Matt to the blog!🙂

How are things going? I mean really going? These days are a little tough to be honest.  We are stuck at home and unable to do most of the things which normally keep us well.  We have so much uncertainty about how much danger we are in, of our means to combat this danger, and of what life will look like in the coming weeks, months, and years.[1]  Is anyone else annoyed by the mental health advice being provided, like breathing techniques, going for a walk, reducing your alcohol intake, watching less Netflix?  These suggestions drive me crazy!  Even though I know that they are sensible, they are not that easy to implement right now, and they are definitely not adequate to completely alleviate the stress we are all under.  Below are some ideas and rationale for a more sensible approach.

The threats and sanctions posed by Coronavirus are not a great recipe for feeling comfortable, at ease, and content.  Instead this sounds like a recipe for poor mental health and it makes me think of some particularly cruel, but also incredibly useful (thanks psychology), research carried out by a man called Martin Seligman in 1967.

Seligman was interested in how animals respond to different reinforcement regimes (rewards and punishments) and in a nutshell he ended up electrocuting dogs in lots of different ways to see what would happen (psychology has a very poor track record of cruelty to animals unfortunately). He found that the dogs who were randomly electrocuted with no way of predicting when this would occur would lay down and whine and appear to ‘give in’ to the suffering.  Seligman termed this effect “learned helplessness’.

‘Learned helplessness’ has since been likened to depressive states where people perceive that their suffering is inevitable, that they are powerless to overcome it, and they seemingly submit to the suffering. Now this can be problematic as it means nothing happens to break the cycle and the depression persists. Seligman later found that physically moving the dogs legs to teach them how to move away from the electrified floor meant that the dogs learned how to escape and that they were then able to repeat this thereafter. So there is also the capacity to overcome ‘learned helplessness’ when we actually do have some capacity to control our situation and escape the pain. Ironically, one of the better evidenced interventions for depression is basically just getting people moving and more active in any way possible (although I have never tried physically moving peoples legs for them..).

So in regards to this whole coronavirus thing, I am left thinking that, just like Seligman’s dogs, we are in a situation where we are experiencing suffering inflicted from an unseen external source that we cannot control, we have no idea when it will end, and we are mostly powerless to actually do much about it. This sounds like a recipe for ‘learned helplessness’ and depression. I have spoken to quite a few students lately who have talked about feeling numb and I am also feeling some malaise and lack of motivation and ‘buzz’ for my normal routines (work, hobbies, goals). I reckon that no amount of yoga, daily exercise, or breathing techniques can actually restore my energy and mood to what it was before the isolation regime. Nothing really replaces being able to hug my family, visit my friends, go camping and take the kids on a holiday, be at work with my team, and be out and about in my community. But does this mean I should ‘learn helplessness’, give in, and go numb through this whole ordeal?  If I did I would drift further in terms of sleep routine, work, exercise, nutrition, etc.  This would definitely make things worse.  So, I have a proposition regarding coping with coronavirus.

It is normal and expected to feel reduced by all this.  We are not supposed to be at our best in such circumstances. We will be slightly less able to study as well, think as clearly, feel as energised, and be as productive. We are somewhat helpless, but not entirely.  We can do some things to partly influence our experience of suffering and if we don’t do these things we will be more likely to enter learned helplessness and numbness. We can do those insultingly simple things like; get up at the same time each day, try some hobbies, exercise regularly, eat well, and care for each other. These are not solutions but will help us to survive well and we can aim to flourish later when this is all over. If some of us are struggling more than others then perhaps, like Seligman’s dogs, we may require some help to get moving and if this is the case then please contact us for some support. 


[1] It feels a little disrespectful to other countries that are enduring mass mortality and more severe lockdowns. These countries are undoubtedly suffering more than we are currently.  But comparing oneself to those who have it worse it not a great way to fairly acknowledge your own suffering.  They are suffering worse, but we too are enduring hardship, albeit at a less catastrophic level.  


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