Reneau Peurifoy
From Anxiety, Phobias & Panic

In the late l960s a now classic experiment was performed in which dogs were given random electric shocks from which they could not escape. The dogs developed what is called learned helplessness. Once they learned that nothing they did made any difference, they became passive and gave up trying to escape. When they were subsequently placed in another situation in which they could easily escape the shocks, they hardly tried.

Later experiments involving humans led Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford University and a leader in his field, to develop a concept he calls self-efficacy. The word efficacy refers to the power or capacity to produce a desired result: the ability to achieve results. The term self-efficacy refers to your belief in your ability to manage a specific situation and get the results you want. If you are confident that you will be able to manage the situation and do well, you have a strong sense of self-efficacy.

A person can have a strong sense of self-efficacy about one type of activity and lack this sense about another. For example, a skilled musician can be confident of performing well during a concert but doubt his or her ability to deliver a simple speech at a banquet. Your belief about your self-efficacy affects your behavior in a variety of ways. It helps determine what activities you attempt and is directly related to the level of anxiety you feel in various situations.

The concepts of learned helplessness and self-efficacy help explain more fully how many of the self-defeating behaviors associated with anxiety develop and how they can be overcome. For example, Gail suffered from panic disorder that had begun when she experienced a panic attack while driving. She did not understand what had happened and did not understand how the various factors described in Lesson 1 had generated the anxiety/panic cycle and were now maintaining it. As she found herself unable to escape the panic attacks, she gave up trying to drive. Gail lost her sense of self-efficacy and was in a state of learned helplessness.

As Gail worked through these lessons, she learned how to manage anxiety and prevent panic attacks by developing rational self-talk skills and using effective coping strategies. This began to increase her sense of self-efficacy. As she practiced driving using in vivo exposure, she became more and more confident of her ability to manage anxiety while driving. In essence, Gail had regenerated her sense of self-efficacy and overcame her state of learned helplessness.

Objects and situations are not intrinsically frightening. They only trigger fear and stress if you doubt your ability to manage them effectively. This is the result of a learning process. While it takes time, energy, and an effective method, new learning can replace old learning. As you learn how to think and act in new, more effective ways, your sense of self-efficacy in various situations increases and your level of anxiety decreases.

Learned Helplessness, SelfEfficacy, and Change