Learned Helplessness

Endowed by the Creator with mental and physical powers, we have launched satellites, transplanted hearts, kidneys and livers allowing people to live longer. We have climbed the highest peaks, descended into the lowest depths and probed outer space going where no man has ever gone before. Athletes keep chopping inches and seconds off world records, but there is a limit to what finite humans can do. Our natural resources can help us overcome many obstacles for a time, but in the end they cannot save us.

A sense of helplessness is a primary symptom of depression and often it is learned. Put fleas in a beaker with a glass plate over the top. After a few futile attempts to fly out, remove the glass plate and the fleas will remain in the beaker. Put a glass divider in an aquarium with fish on one side and their favorite food on the other. Within days, remove the glass divider, and the fish will remain on their side. Baby elephants are staked to the ground, and they will remain staked to the ground even when they are older and could easily pull up the stake, because they learned to be helpless.

God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:6). But when Moses shared this good news with the Israelites, they didn’t listen to him, “because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (vs. 9). Years of conditioning had left them with a sense of helplessness. Even today there are entire people groups who are gripped by depression, because they feel helpless to change their circumstances.

Scientific experiments are showing that a real or perceived sense of helplessness affects our neurochemistry. Helping a person overcome their sense of helplessness and hopelessness has proven to be as effective as antidepressant medication without having to deal with potentially negative side effects.

Why has there been such a significant increase in depression over the last fifty years? What biochemical changes have we undergone that would make us so much more vulnerable to depression? It is very doubtful that our brain chemistry or our genes have radically changed. Our hope has been misplaced, our beliefs have strayed from the truth, and we have not learned how helplessness can be overcome by turning to God.

Dr. Neil

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