Sometimes Relief Means Never Giving Up

Desert with bright sky

By Dr. Peter Abaci

Managing chronic pain is often a hard battle to win. Sometimes just hanging in there can be a frustrating and draining process, but finding ways to problem solve in order to overcome hurdles can be a key trait to develop for long-lasting success. It’s important to not let the pain that you have today make you give up on what you can achieve tomorrow.

Suppose you rig up a little box so that it has a metal plate on the bottom, and you can deliver an electric shock through that plate. Then you put a mouse in the box and shock him every so often. The electric jolt is painful so he tries to get away, running to one side of the box, then another, then back to the center, searching for a safe place. But no matter where he goes he gets zapped and soon, he stops trying. He just stands there and takes it because he becomes conditioned to feeling helpless. This is an example of how continuous pain can cause the poor mouse to give up.

Several decades ago, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman began researching a theory known as learned helplessness. His findings, which have been confirmed by many studies, demonstrated that when people believe they have no control over their situation, they tend to give up. Rather than fight to regain control, instead of trying a new path or idea or concept or treatment, they give up. They have learned to be helpless.

When learned helplessness sets in, you become conditioned to the idea that you’ll never get better. This makes learned helpless the opposite of resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to withstand difficulties, whether they be physical or emotional. Think of resilience as a way of problem-solving and adapting in order to achieve positive change and meaningful results. It’s a mind-set, a willingness to work through problems rather than giving up.

Just like helplessness, resilience can be learned, too. Embrace these tools for building resiliency:

  • Find meaning in adversity – Instead of wondering why is life giving you problems, thank life for giving you an opportunity to explore yourself more deeply, and to become stronger as you learn new ways to connect with yourself, with others, and with life.
  • Build optimism – You can choose to be optimistic by thinking carefully about what you are thinking, then focusing on your good, positive and hopeful thoughts. You can also infuse these great thoughts into your mind by thinking about the wonderful you know, the good things that have happened to you, the ways you’ve helped others, and the many wonderful things you look forward to. And when you think about those wonderful things to come, imagine yourself actually doing them, as if they are happening now.
  • Accept change – Life is a continuous arc of change; no one leaves it the way they came in. Embrace changes, even those that may seem unfortunate at the moment, as opportunities for exploration and growth.
  • Move toward your goals – Always keep your eye firmly fixed on the big picture, on the wonderful vision you have for yourself, rather than on today’s problems
  • Connect with other positive people – Feelings are contagious, which means that connecting with those who are happy, compassionate, optimistic and otherwise filled with positive thoughts can lift your mood and improve your health.

Creating a mindset of being resilient, as opposed to losing hope, can be an important part of building a better mouse trap to manage pain.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at