Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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This is one of the worst things you can do to someone: teach them that they have no control over their life, nor are they able to prevent bad events from happening. The result is called learned helplessness: someone who has learned that there is no point in reacting to problems or trying to find a solution, even when there is a way out. Dozens of studies show what happens in these cases, which are especially serious when the lessons of powerlessness begin in childhood. These individuals suffer from a negative perception of the world, chronic anxiety, exaggerated responses to acute and chronic stress, and a high rate of illness. 

On the contrary, the feeling of having some control over the situation directly reduces the stress response and promotes health. Even the sensation of pain decreases when you know it will only be temporary, like an injection, or when you have control over the administration of painkillers.

Interestingly, the feeling of control is more important than the control itself. Give someone a button to press when they feel pain or their environment gets too noisy, and their response to these stresses will be healthier – even if the button has no effect on the pain or sound. The importance of the feeling of control also explains why we are less anxious driving our own car than traveling by plane, even though statistics show that the plane is much safer. In an airplane, we’re just passengers, at the mercy of the pilot. In our car, we are the pilot.

The feeling of helplessness, however, is not always bad. It’s healthy, in fact, when something moderately bad happens and you can think that it would have been worse if you hadn’t been in control. But trying to have total control over everything is a bad idea. Firstly, because a totally controlled life would be boring; secondly, because it would not only be unfeasible but also terribly stressful to expect to be in control of everything; and thirdly, because it would be unfair to demand that you control uncontrollable tragedies. In such cases, it’s healthier to recognize that there was nothing you could do.

Wisdom lies in the middle ground, as the prayer attributed sometimes to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, sometimes to St. Francis of Assisi says: “Lord, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo, on October, 2006.

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