Flight, fight or nap? Responding to stress with learned helplessness

Many of us nap as a stress response. Photo: Sleeping on the job

WASHINGTON, January 7, 2014 — Many people respond to stress and anxiety by getting tired, sleepy and depleted of strength, then taking a nap as a response to stress and anxiety.

Immediately after feeling angry, some people cannot keep their eyes from closing.

Is fatigue an abnormal response to these types of emotions? Not necessarily.

Normally, when we are faced with acute stress, anxiety or anger, stress hormones such as adrenaline are pumped into our system along with a raised heart rate, heavier breathing for extra oxygen, and oxygen rich blood races to our large muscle groups to prepare us for fight or flight. This is a primitive response much like sexual attraction and hunger satiation; built into man and animal.

So what’s with the fatigue and lying down? Would a tiger feel anger, stress and anxiety and respond by a snooze in tall grass? Normally, a tiger will act quite decisively and aggressively, and sleep in the face of anxiety seems to contradict nature.

The fatigue/nap response is a learned response in man and animal and far more widespread than one might think. In psychology, the term ‘learned helplessness’ describes a condition where we learn that we cannot affect a given situation, cannot escape adverse circumstances and will stop avoiding such situations and eventually learn that helplessness is the singular response.

Learned helplessness is related to loss of control over a given set of circumstances where one feels nothing they can do will alter outcomes.

An animal may respond to a loud voice by lying down and cowering because it has been exposed to many instances of loud voices prior to being physically abused and knows this may be the only way to prevent pain.

Memory plays a large role in how one responds to stressful situations. New information is stored in short term memory where the brain decides if the thought is worth storing or replaces it with newer information. The problem comes in when many thoughts are determined as important but if not acted on, these thoughts pile up into a maze of confusion and can be overwhelming. We have all said “I don’t know where to start” and feel like and often do turn our backs to whatever is bothering us and take a nap.

This thinking means we let thoughts pile up and become a burden. When we act and resolve even a portion of what seems bothers us, we feel accomplished, energetic and satisfied with ourselves.

If we do not act and the pile gets bigger and deeper, we feel helplessness and abandon all hope even to the extent we get only what is new to us done and let the rest remain to accumulate in our minds and desks, tables, garages, cars etc:

The same philosophy applies to, say, a spouse complaining yet again of something that never seems to get resolved. We can actually get fatigued by this stress because we know this argument is ongoing without resolution and often, one of many arguments to come.

We may attempt to resolve whatever the complaint du jour is only to find new ones on our heels along with the nagging that comes with unresolved issues. We cannot seem to affect spousal complaints regardless of intention so we don’t act and the stress acts as a form of a sleep drug. We escape.

There truly is only one way out and this to do what our instincts have programmed us to do; act and try to act right away to prevent the piling on effect. Even small measures of effort will make us feel accomplished and eventually, we find we have completed a boring task piece by piece.

Some of us are ‘all or nothing’ types where we feel we must tackle the problem in its entirety right then and there and these types of people suffer most. The saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day’ is valid because it not only is true, but applies to about everything we do.

We must gain control of our efforts, projects, relationships and piled on thoughts in order to keep up our energy levels, feel well of ourselves and clear the mental plate.

A ‘can do’ feeling trumps ‘no way’ and serves for us to regain what psychology calls ‘locus of control’. Locus of control is the amount of power and control we have within the sphere of our lives. When this sphere is not with our grasp of power and outcomes are based on the environment, not within our control, we can fall into despair and depression and experience helplessness.

Most motivational speakers home in on this very theory weather the sphere is personal professional or both. The refrain ‘take control of your life’ is the foundation most books and motivational conferences are based upon.

Happiness, sense of accomplishment, moving forward and resolving issues are solid motivational tools to bring us from loss of locus control, helplessness and despair.

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist and writer.


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Paul R. Mountjoy

Paul Mountjoy is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science

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