Motivation under trauma

May 3 JDN 2458971

Whenever I ask someone how they are doing lately, I get the same answer: “Pretty good, under the circumstances.” There seems to be a general sense that—at least among the sort of people I interact with regularly—that our own lives are still proceeding more or less normally, as we watch in horror the crises surrounding us. Nothing in particular is going wrong for us specifically. Everything is fine, except for the things that are wrong for everyone everywhere.

One thing that seems to be particularly difficult for a lot of us is the sense that we suddenly have so much time on our hands, but can’t find the motivation to actually use this time productively. So many hours of our lives were wasted on commuting or going to meetings or attending various events we didn’t really care much about but didn’t want to feel like we had missed out on. But now that we have these hours back, we can’t find the strength to use them well.

This is because we are now, as an entire society, experiencing a form of trauma. One of the most common long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder is a loss of motivation. Faced with suffering we have no power to control, we are made helpless by this traumatic experience; and this makes us learn to feel helpless in other domains.

There is a classic experiment about learned helplessness; like many old classic experiments, its ethics are a bit questionable. Though unlike many such experiments (glares at Zimbardo), its experimental rigor was ironclad. Dogs were divided into three groups. Group 1 was just a control, where the dogs were tied up for a while and then let go. Dogs in groups 2 and 3 were placed into a crate with a floor that could shock them. Dogs in group 2 had a lever they could press to make the shocks stop. Dogs in group 3 did not. (They actually gave the group 2 dogs control over the group 3 dogs to make the shock times exactly equal; but the dogs had no way to know that, so as far as they knew the shocks ended at random.)

Later, dogs from both groups were put into another crate, where they no longer had a lever to press, but they could jump over a barrier to a different part of the crate where the shocks wouldn’t happen. The dogs from group 2, who had previously had some control over their own pain, were able to quickly learn to do this. The dogs from group 3, who had previously felt pain apparently at random, had a very hard time learning this, if they could ever learn it at all. They’d just lay there and suffer the shocks, unable to bring themselves to even try to leap the barrier.

The group 3 dogs just knew there was nothing they could do. During their previous experience of the trauma, all their actions were futile, and so in this new trauma they were certain that their actions would remain futile. When nothing you do matters, the only sensible thing to do is nothing; and so they did. They had learned to be helpless.

I think for me, chronic migraines were my first crate. For years of my life there was basically nothing I could do to prevent myself from getting migraines—honestly the thing that would have helped most would have been to stop getting up for high school that started at 7:40 AM every morning. Eventually I found a good neurologist and got various treatments, as well as learned about various triggers and found ways to avoid most of them. (Let me know if you ever figure out a way to avoid stress.) My migraines are now far less frequent than they were when I was a teenager, though they are still far more frequent than I would prefer.

Yet, I think I still have not fully unlearned the helplessness that migraines taught me. Every time I get another migraine despite all the medications I’ve taken and all the triggers I’ve religiously avoided, this suffering beyond my control acts as another reminder of the ultimate caprice of the universe. There are so many things in our lives that we cannot control that it can be easy to lose sight of what we can.

This pandemic is a trauma that the whole world is now going through. And perhaps that unity of experience will ultimately save us—it will make us see the world and each other a little differently than we did before.

There are a few things you can do to reduce your own risk of getting or spreading the COVID-19 infection, like washing your hands regularly, avoiding social contact, and wearing masks when you go outside. And of course you should do these things. But the truth really is that there is very little any one of us can do to stop this global pandemic. We can watch the numbers tick up almost in real-time—as of this writing, 1 million cases and over 50,000 deaths in the US, 3 million cases and over 200,000 deaths worldwide—but there is very little we can do to change those numbers.

Sometimes we really are helpless. The challenge we face is not to let this genuine helplessness bleed over and make us feel helpless about other aspects of our lives. We are currently sitting in a crate with no lever, where the shocks will begin and end beyond our control. But the day will come when we are delivered to a new crate, and given the chance to leap over a barrier; we must find the strength to take that leap.

For now, I think we can forgive ourselves for getting less done than we might have hoped. We’re still not really out of that first crate.

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