Seligman in 1991 published ‘Learned Optimism’ and reported results of an earlier experiment that measured psychological effects on physical health.
Groups of rats in 3 cages had a few cancerous cells injected under their skins. Cage 1 received no shocks. Two of the groups, Cages 2 and 3, then received electric shocks at random. Cage 2 could escape from the shocks by together pressing a switch, which they quickly learned to do when they rushed to the end of the cage and pressed on a bar that turned the shock off for a time. Cage 3 could not escape from the shocks.
After a time, the rats that were still alive were checked for presence of cancer tumours. Rats with tumours that had grown to more than 6mm were euthanized and recorded as ‘died’.
|CAGE||GROUP||REJECTED TUMOR %||DIED %|
|1||no shock (control)||50||50|
|2||switch off shock||70||30|
The results were dramatic and surprising. Most surprising was that the rats who mastered the shock and switched it off did better than the rats that had no shock at all.
The rats in Cage 2 had control over unpleasantness, seeming to strengthen their resistance to cancer with lower mortality. The experiment demonstrated a phenomenon ‘Learned Helplessness.’ When an inescapable unpleasantness has to be experienced, the individual’s resistance is lowered generally. Conversely, through overcoming the unpleasantness, the individual’s resistance is strengthened.
Helplessness is a default reaction to bad events which when it turns on the dorsal raphe nucleus in the limbic system, turns off the hope circuit activated by mastery and anticipation of control. Regardless of the outside world, it produces all the symptoms of learned helplessness: the panic, the passivity, the sadness. If the dorsal raphe was anaesthetised and turned off they didn’t become helpless and their immune system increased activity.
Being in control of even a stressful environment is better for health than being helpless.
It is hypothesised that individuals able to exercise control over unpleasant aspects of restrictions and treatment would be more likely to recover from COVID-19. Individuals could have control over their access to care, personalisation of the testing and treatment environment, diet choice, exercise opportunities, limited isolation and social interaction opportunities. Nurturing of control by patients over their treatments and environments would improve their effectiveness.