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Learned Helpless: What is It? (And How to Reverse It!)

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Depression was at epidemic levels even before the pandemic, but once the quarantine period began, it quickly jumped to 28%. That’s more than one in 4 people suffering! As Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen explain in their new PBS special ‘Overcoming Anxiety, Depression, Trauma & Grief’, taming the Hopeless & Helpless Dragons that leave you feeling depressed can be achieved by recognizing patterns of something called ‘learned helplessness’.

Watch the brand new TV special from Dr. Daniel and Tana Amen “Overcoming Anxiety, Depression, Trauma & Grief” on PBS now! Check you local listings for showtimes.


Daniel Amen, MD:

Welcome to the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast. I’m Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And I’m Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.

Daniel Amen, MD:

The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information visit amenclinics.com.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to brainmd.com.

Daniel Amen, MD:

In my new book, Your Brain is Always Listening. The first part is about the dragons from the past that breathe fire on your emotional brain. One of the most common dragons during the pandemic is the hopeless and helpless dragon, and this is a dragon that is running wild around the earth. The depression was already at epidemic levels before the pandemic happened and was at about 8%. Typically, the 40 years I’ve been a psychiatrist, it’s been around 6% of the population at any point in their lives struggled with depression, but it had been snaking up, and when the pandemic hit, just a couple of months later it was at 28% of the population.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Well, and we’ve got teenagers in the house, and not just ours, but they struggle with it off and on, but their friends almost all of our daughter’s friends have struggled with depression. It’s just really hard. Come closer to me so we can see …

Daniel Amen, MD:

The boss dragon, right here.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I like that. I want a t-shirt that says, “Boss dragon.”

Daniel Amen, MD:

Oh, we’re having dragon puppets made and I swear-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I want boss dragon for mine.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Boss dragon that would be-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

The dragon queen not queen of dragons, but dragon queen.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And that would be correct. So with all the dragons, we talk about their origin story. So you know how this dragon sort of bit you in your early twenties. There’s a term that I really love from my friend, Seligman, on learned helplessness. What that means is you try to feel better and it doesn’t work, and you try to feel better and it doesn’t work, and you try to feel better and it doesn’t work. Pretty soon, you say to heck with it and you stop trying. You actually learn that you’re helpless or learn that you’re hopeless.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah, it’s funny how families are so different and how some people don’t stop trying and some people do.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Part of it depends on their brain function.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah, I wonder how much of it’s genetic or modeled?

Daniel Amen, MD:

Well I think it’s all, right? We always talk about the four circles that there are biological factors associated with depression. So genes would be one, but head trauma would be another, toxic exposure, mold exposure all of those things can contribute to depression. But there are also psychological causes, where you don’t know how to manage your mind. There’s social causes if there’s a pandemic.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Or modeling. Would that go under social?

Daniel Amen, MD:

Social could go under modeling, that people handle their problems by giving up.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Like your parents or-

Daniel Amen, MD:

And there’s spiritual causes of depression, if you are not living according to your own values, your own sense of ethics. The origin can also be you’re overwhelmed by stress and conflict, that you don’t believe you can have an impact on the negative situation. That your thyroid is low, right? If you have thyroid cancer and they don’t replace your thyroid, what happened to you, all of a sudden you sort of feel depressed.

What triggers this dragon? Basically anything that reminds you of when you felt powerless. How does this dragon cause you to react? You have something called a high negativity bias. Your brain just goes to the dark place quickly.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Why are you looking at me?

Daniel Amen, MD:

Because you’re pretty.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

See? I thought-

Daniel Amen, MD:

That was an example of high negativity bias.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I thought you were looking at me because you were, “I do that.” That was classic.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Yeah this is hysterical. It’s trigger cause people to blame themselves, to blame others, you have a lack of self-efficacy. One of your favorite terms is responsibility-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yep, my favorite word.

Daniel Amen, MD:

But it’s not about blame, it’s about your ability to respond to situation that you’re in. People respond to this dragon with depression, powerlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, social withdrawal, giving up easily. This is the dragon most closely associated to suicide. How do you tame?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I remember being so depressed and thinking life is too hard. It’s not supposed to be this hard, there’s no point it’s a really awful dark, ugly place to be.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So how did you get out of that? Besides maybe-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

It was a very long process, but I’m just-

Daniel Amen, MD:

You actually shared that?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

In my book, yeah.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Which now has 57 reviews on Amazon it’s like 4.8 out of five. It’s a great book. I know I’ve been saying it you’re going, “But you’re her husband.” Well what would happen if you didn’t say, “You’re married to a red hat, Lord knows what would happen.” Anyways it’s a great book.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Thank you.

Daniel Amen, MD:

I’m very proud of you. Alright, so how do you tame that sort of a point of all of this, if you’ve been struggling with depression, so we take this four circle approach. Did you know there is a linear correlation between the number of fruits and vegetables you eat a day and your level of happiness? So first thing you want to get your diet right. Tana has written a great book it’s been a really great seller for a long time. The Brain Warrior’s Way Cookbook, every recipe gluten-free, dairy-free corn, soy, artificial dyes, preservative free, but they taste great.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Speaking of which the Brain Warrior’s Way, that was part of it was beginning to identify when I felt my weakest with being a warrior was like, “How do I, what is the opposite of me right now?” Because this isn’t working. What’s the opposite me and it’s a warrior. So someone who’s strong, who’s always training, who’s prepared, who’s doesn’t give up. That was when I sort of adopted that idea of trying to focus on something that was different than I was.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So mindset’s really important. But under the biological circle diet, critical exercise, head-to-head against antidepressants walking like your late for 45 minutes four times a week found to be equally effective. Omega-3 fatty acids, head-to-head against Prozac and study from a New Zealand, more effective. And so exercise, lots of vegetables, colorful fruits and vegetables, Omega-3 fatty acids I’m a huge fan.

As all of my family’s here of happy saffron, something we make at BrainMD. Saffron, Zinc and curcumins, all scientific evidence it can boost your mood. Well, how simple is that? And if those things don’t work, then antidepressants for sure can be helpful based on your brain type, everybody’s brain is different. Psychological circles, something we call positivity bias trend panels on the doctors. Last Friday you probably find the clip online. I was so proud of her, she did a great job. When she talked about positivity bias trainings, you might have talked about.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

So our brains are hardwired to focus on what’s bad, to focus on what’s scary, what’s threatening especially if you grew up in a traumatic environment, right? It’s what kept you safe is we’ve got those spidey sense. The spidey senses that protect us, but they also can ruin your day if that’s all you’re focusing on. If you’re constantly focusing on the negative. So when you focus positivity, bias training is really simple.

It sounds really simple and it is really simple. It’s you wake up in the morning and you start training your brain to focus on what’s positive. And you can say, today’s going to be a great day or in my case I like questions, “Why is today going to be a great day?” Because then my brain starts searching for why today is going to be a great day. Your brain doesn’t have a sense of humor at all, it just does what you tell it to do, it tries to. So if you say, “Why is today going to be a great day?”

Daniel Amen, MD:

You laughed at me all the time.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Here wait that’s not my brain, that’s just me laughing. But if you ask the question, “Why is today going to be a great day?” Then your brain is going to start working to try to figure it out. And it sounds over least simplistic and it actually is. But then at the end of the day, we get together at dinner with the kids and we always ask, “So what went well today?” And as simple as those two questions are by answering them, that simple act of answering them in the morning and at night you begin to… It’s not like you’re going to lose your spidey sense, it’s not like you’re going to lose your ability to notice what’s wrong. Trust me on this as somebody who does that. But you begin to now be able to focus on what’s good also, because that’s not our nature.

Daniel Amen, MD:

It’s not our nature. Also, when you get depressed your mind goes to what’s wrong. I actually want you write out a list of your strengths and your accomplishments I think that’s so important. I learned early on as the sky first I can make anybody cry, can make anybody feel bad by getting to focus on their failures and their fears and the times they didn’t perform or act the way they wanted to. BUt I would never leave somebody there I always want to know what went well. Tell me about the best parts of your week and I have all of my patients write down their top 20 happy moments. Socially, there’s actually a treatment called interpersonal psychotherapy has been found to be as effective as antidepressant medication is work to make your relationships better. You are clearly an antidepressant

And it’s work, right? I mean, we both Work having a good relationship. We know what we want kind, caring, loving, supportive, passionate relationship and we supervise the things that come out of our mouth.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And the more you do it, the easier it gets like anything else like working out or it’s a discipline.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So important and we have control. Like, I totally know how to make her angry at me and I choose not to do it.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Thank God you choose not to do it.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And I totally know what makes her happy. I make her latte in the morning, I make her smoothie a little bit later I make her brain help-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Do you see this pattern here?

Daniel Amen, MD:

We serve each other, right? Because our relationship is important actually more important now that the 17-year-old is going off to college, I’m going from number two in the family to number one. I always feel like abies try harder.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Oh stop it

Daniel Amen, MD:

And then there’s spiritual treatments for depression. If you read the Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning that living with meaning and purpose is an antidepressant plus you live longer. So what movies does the hopeless and helpless dragon like movies that fit your negative mood, like the Joker or Million Dollar Baby, Schindler’s List. What dreams may come? One of my favorite movies with Robin Williams were The Green Mile.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Oh, The Green Mile.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Great movie if you’re struggling with depression, it is one of the most treatable illnesses. If you try these simple things and it’s not working for you, call the clinics, go to amen clinics.com, amen like the last word prayer clinics.com, it is one of the most common it’s the most common reason people call us and we are very effective. But in order to treat depression properly, you’ve got to get your brain right, your mind right, your relationships and your deepest sense of meaning and purpose. We hope this is helpful and if you order my new book coming out March 2nd, Your Brain is Always Listening and you go to yourbrainisalwayslistening.com. We have four free gifts included and coupon for a free bottle of happy saffron. See you soon.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Thanks.

Speaker 3:

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Speaker 4:

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