As another winter storm descends on much of the nation, affecting as many as 100 million people, lots of folks are telling me they’ve “had enough.” They look defeated, not just bothered and inconvenienced – it’s as if they have battled the elements individually—and been overpowered.
Weather extremes can do that to people, for a few different reasons.
First, repeated blizzards or rainstorms or, for that matter, scorching hot days of drought during the summer, almost perfectly mimic the laboratory experiments on “learned helplessness.” In learned helplessness experiments, researchers arranged to shock rats either on a schedule—say, every 30 minutes—or randomly, with shocks being delivered, for example, an hour apart, then again in five minutes, then in 20 minutes, then in 10 seconds.
The rats shocked on a scheduled and, hence, predictable, basis did OK. They weren’t thrilled or anything, but they didn’t give up or stop eating. They seemed to know they had freedom between shocks and could hunker down when shocks were due. The rats shocked on a random basis ultimately just lay down on the wire grid floors of their cages and gave up all meaningful activity.
They became despondent. They were worn out psychologically.
We don’t know when the next winter storm in a lineup of storms is coming, so the relatively minor emotional impact it might have on us is magnified. We carry with us the cumulative impact of being shocked randomly by storm after storm. And we feel like giving up and lying down.
The second reason repeated storms can take a big, psychological toll on people is that they can recall events in our lives that caused us distress and over which we had no control. Snow that keeps coming, no matter what, can literally cause angst in an adult woman who unconsciously link today’s storms with unpredictable fights between her parents that she witnessed as a girl, and had no power to stop. At this very moment, even if people haven’t yet made the connection (and most won’t), this winter weather is stirring up feelings about illnesses that afflicted friends and relatives, bullies who couldn’t be vanquished, loved ones lost in war.
In its psychological essence, a storm is a storm is a storm.
So, how can we overcome feelings of helplessness this winter?
The key is deciding to defeat each storm and noticing when you’re winning. Think about this next storm and the one coming up after it as battles—you against nature. Obviously, no one can stop snow or sleet or freezing rain from coming, but outsmarting it by getting the right shovel, salt, sand, firewood and brushes and stocking up on food can ward off helplessness.
Allow yourself to appreciate having the intellectual capacity to plan or the physical power to move some snow out of your way.
Don’t just “make it” to work, consider it a victory when you get there. Look around at the lights in your house and smirk about the fact that electricity is still flowing to them. Listen to the wind whipping against the house and notice that you are still warm inside.
Also, don’t run away from your memories. Actually invite yourself to think about events in your life you wish you wish you could have had control over, but didn’t. Don’t be afraid to dwell on them. It’s far better to consciously consider the times you felt helpless than to be depleted by them unconsciously.
You’ve survived every storm in your life. Take some joy in that fact. It might just warm you up.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, and co-author, with Glenn Beck, of the book "The 7: Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life". Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.