Dogs who were trained that they could avoid the shocks learned to keep trying

The psychology of fitness phobia

Martin Seligman is famous for shocking dogs.   As a psychology graduate student at Penn in the 1960s, he ran a well-known experiment in which dogs were administered electrical shocks under 2 scenarios: either they could learn how to avoid the shocks or the shocks kept coming at random no matter what the dogs did.  The ones who were given the opportunity to avoid the shocks easily learned how.  The other poor creatures quit
trying.  They even quit protesting and just cowered and whimpered quietly, resigned to their fate.  This response, dubbed “learned helplessness”, became an animal model for human depression.  Seligman further observed that dogs who were first taught that they could avoid the shocks, were more resistant to becoming helpless.  Their brains had rewired themselves.  Their own beliefs had, in effect, become a vaccine against depression.  Think about the power of that concept for a moment – beliefs can rewire the brain to resist depression.

Dogs who were first taught that they could avoid the shocks kept trying - they had learned optimism

Dogs who were first taught that they could avoid the shocks kept trying – they had learned optimism

 

Changing your beliefs can rewire your brain.

In 1978 Seligman, by then a famous psychologist, designed an experiment to see if humans could be similarly vaccinated against depression.  The answer, in short, was yes.  The mechanism  of the response had to do with what Seligman called their explanatory style.  Training people to respond to negative events with a certain type of thinking habit (called narrow, external, and transient) fortified their defenses against depression.  He called this new response, “learned optimism “, and it ushered in a new field of psychiatry – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

If you think that your metabolism, motivation, willpower, and body type are all out of your control, you are likely to give up on fitness altogether

If you think that your metabolism, motivation, willpower, and body type are all out of your control, you are likely to give up on fitness altogether

If you’re reading this, you’re fitness-phobic.  You’ve probably been told and you’ve somehow come to believe that your body type is your destiny, you can’t change your metabolism, or you just don’t have the discipline or the willpower to stick to a fitness program.  Even worse, you may have come to believe that you just don’t deserve to be one of the fit people, the kind of person who loves the body they see in the mirror.  These are what Seligman would call broad, internal, and permanent explanatory styles – the exact thinking patterns that lead to learned helplessness.  The assumption that deep down there’s something wrong with you – it’s internal; it dooms everything you ever try – it’s broad; it will never change – it’s permanent.

So when you blame your failure to persist or reach your goals on yourself, you’re suffering from a form of learned helplessness.  This is why you face such overwhelming fear of failure, a fear that can make you decide to fail before you even start, or can erode you motivation once you do start, until you resign yourself to failure and quit.

The good news is that it’s been scientifically proven that these thought patterns can be reversed, and changing them can make you immune to the negativity for good.  There is nothing wrong with you.  Your body type is not your destiny.  You can change your metabolism.  You don’t need some super-special willpower or uber-discipline.  All you need is knowledge, a plan, and a system.

Most importantly, you are worthy of waking up every day for the rest of your life and loving the body you see in the mirror.

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