Leading Consciously logo

Onward through the fog: How to go from helplessness to optimism (#128)

author's headshotauthor's headshotauthor's headshot
Jean Latting
June 20, 2024
apple podcast logotunein podcast logospotify logoamazon podcast logogoogle podcast logo
spotify logoapple podcast logotunein podcast logogoogle podcast logoamazon podcast logo

Brain fog is a trap we fall into when our emotional reaction to a negative experience keeps us frozen. If we don’t have tools to keep us moving, we get stuck where it hurts the most.

All is lost

Kaylin ended the call almost reluctantly. She couldn’t believe what Quincy had just told her. After all her hard work, and long hours of planning and trying to meet his every request, Quincy said he wasn’t sure what would happen with her promotion.   

“It’s touch and go,” he had explained. He was doing all he could, but he didn’t know how the review would turn out. His leader seemed to miss the significance of one part of her portfolio. She was still in the running, but he dared make no predictions. If she missed promotion this time, he would try again in six months.

She felt the gloom descend. What had been a cheerful morning was replaced by listlessness and a fog over her thoughts. I give up, she thought. There is no way he will ever recognize my value. He never really tried to get me that promotion. He only cares about his cronies. I just need to get out of that place, but where? I can’t go through another job search!

This is an all-too-familiar scenario for many of us.

The visceral shutdown

Learned Hopelessness diagram

What just happened?

Something threatening occurs [1]. Kaylin’s body reacts viscerally, and her brain registers an emotional charge [2].  Overwhelmed by threat and ambiguity, she enters the fog [3], marked by scattered attention, random thoughts, confusion, and uncertainty.  

In the throes of the fog, selective perception narrows her options [4]. Someone else is at fault [5]; their power is greater than hers. Because she can only see the negative near-certainty (in her eyes) of not being promoted, she misses slivers of opportunities. In this case, Quincy said that one part of her portfolio wasn’t as clear as it could be [6]. If she were thinking clearly, she might ask to see if there was an option to provide more information.

Lost in the fog, she missed that opportunity, and instead she took Quincy’s last words, “try once again in six months,” to mean “never” [7].

With all hope gone, she descends into learned helplessness [8]. With no viable options, she sinks into depression and despair. Doing the smallest thing – ordering food, putting away her work papers – seems like wasted effort. What was she doing with her life? she wondered.

Notice the lightning-speed progression: from disappointing news -> entering the fog -> deciding she was doomed -> questioning the meaning of her life.

It was a familiar feeling. She had muddled her way through that same self-defeating path several times for the last 10 years. 

I have heard many variations of Kaylin’s story from clients, friends, and relatives for most of my life. I, too, have sunk into that same depressive spiral of disappointing news propelling me into a fog of helpless futility.

What is anxiety-induced brain fog?

man slumped with a cloud over his head

It actually is a term: “anxiety-induced brain fog.” 

Brain fog can stem from a physical condition, but mental health disturbances are the most common cause. Anxious thoughts turn into rumination and worry, leaving the brain with little energy for executive decision-making.  

Not being able to think clearly is itself frightening and anxiety-producing. The brain fog and anxiety become a vicious cycle, making it increasingly difficult to handle the smallest tasks, much less plan toward important goals.1

When it happens to me, it feels like a literal fog. My sensations are dulled; colors are less bright and I feel somewhat numb and surreal. Everything happening on the outside slows down, while my inner thoughts are racing so fast I can’t focus on any one thought or figure my way out of it. 

Learned helplessness

In this state, I either cannot figure out what to do or every option feels futile. 

Martin Seligman and Steven Maier coined the term “learned helplessness” after conducting animal experiments in which dogs who couldn’t escape shocks stopped trying, even though later they were capable of stopping them.

Learned helplessness occurs when a person or animal is up against a continuous, uncontrollable, negative situation and stops trying to change the situation, even if they later have the capacity to do so. 

Do you wonder why some women don’t leave their abusive spouses, people continue smoking despite knowing they should stop, and bright students stop trying to improve their grades? Each of these is an example of learned helplessness. People who believe they cannot change their circumstances become passive in the face of it, no matter how distressing.

opened journal surrounded by crumpled paper

My most intense period of learned helplessness as an adult occurred when I was on the tenure track treadmill at the University of Houston with a publish or perish mandate. I submitted the same paper three times to different publications; it was rejected each time. My anxiety became so intense, I could not focus enough to even read the criticisms and address them in a rewrite.

When I first heard the term “learned helplessness,” it resonated with me immediately. I was drawn to it because of the word “learned.” If I had learned my way into feeling helpless, I could learn my way out of it.

Learned optimism

While Seligman was performing his studies on learned helplessness, he noted that not everyone experienced it even when he attempted to condition them to do so. He shifted his focus to study why some people avoided falling into helplessness.  

He noted some people blamed themselves for the negative outcomes while others blamed his experiments for setting them up to fail. This pointed to the answer: optimism was induced by students’ perceptions of the misfortunes they experienced in his labs.2

He labelled these styles as either optimistic or pessimistic. Pessimistic styles see their negative situation as permanent, pervasive, and uncontrollable. In contrast, optimistic styles view situations as temporary, specific, and personally controllable.

Pessimistic explanatory style:

  • Permanent/always: “l have always been unlucky.”  
  • Pervasive/everywhere: “I am unlucky everywhere I go.”
  • Uncontrollable: “I didn’t get the job because I am unlucky.”

Optimistic explanatory style:

  • Temporary: “I have been unlucky today.”
  • Specific: “I’ve been unlucky at work.”
  • Controllable: “I didn’t get the job because I was unprepared for the interview.”

In short, a person using an optimistic explanatory style doesn’t generalize from one experience to draw conclusions about the situation “always” and “everywhere.” They interpret negative situations to their advantage.

Optimists take credit for their successes and attribute failures to outside forces. Pessimists credit outside forces for their successes, while blaming themselves for disappointments.

Seligman’s research demonstrated that we can break free of the cycle of learned helplessness by changing how we explain our successes and failures to ourselves.

How it happens

Let’s retrace Kaylin’s thoughts after her disappointing conversation with Quincy.

“I give up. There is no way he will ever recognize my value. He never really tried to get me that promotion. He only cares about his cronies. I just need to get out of that place, but where? I can’t go through another job search!

She begins with a statement of helplessness (“I give up”). Then goes into pervasiveness (“no way”) followed by permanence (“never”), ending with a statement of her own lack of control (“can’t go through”). 

No wonder she entered the fog. Her self-talk was undermining her ability to come up with a solution.

Emerging from the fog – how to reframe self-talk to generate optimism

Learned Optimism diagram

How could she have changed her self-talk to emerge from the fog and empower herself to act?

As shown in Figure 2, she still would have experienced disappointment that Quincy seemed to be putting off her promotion. The emotional hit may have zapped her into the fog and scattered her attention so she thought she couldn’t think – or even possibly breathe [3]

The next step is crucial and takes a commitment to oneself. Getting out of the fog requires either emotional or cognitive reframing – sometimes both.

For me, the challenge is to acknowledge that I really can do something to come out of the fog. The fog is very seductive. It whispers to us this is all there is and we are stuck.

I reframe that by thinking of my emotions as physiological reactions, not as who I am [4]. My emotions are not who I am; rather, they are something my body is experiencing. My body is reacting to something that is happening in the world. This thought cues me to act on the emotions, rather than succumbing to them. 

This sleight-of-hand rewording gives me just enough distance from my intense emotional reactions to know that it’s up to me to clear my head: journal, walk, meditate, talk with a friend. I may even tell myself that I will allow only 15 minutes up to an hour for a pity party. 

When all of my efforts to emerge from the fog fail, the last sure-fire remedy is to recite Invictus by William Ernest Henley. In junior high school we were required to memorize it. Our teachers in my segregated school were committed to giving us the ability to face what they knew would be challenges ahead. This particular teacher gave us Invictus as protective armor:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed….

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

If I stick with refusing to accept my emotional reactions as the final word – and choose instead to meditate, journal, recite Invictus, or whatever – at some point, I know I will eventually figure out how to deal with the situation – or I will recognize the opportunity when it shows up.

Recognizing opportunity

Let’s go back to Kaylin. Lost in the fog and her own misery, Kaylin had shut down all possibilities and was stewing in her own pessimistic juices.

Suppose she had challenged herself to reframe her thinking by considering her situation as a temporary dilemma occurring at this point in her career (specific) and recognized that options possibly exist that she had not considered (controllable) [5].

She might try exploring Quincy’s possible lifeline: “leader seemed to miss the significance of one part of her portfolio.” Was it too late? Could she provide additional context for her work? Was there someone the leader listened to who might be able to shed light? 

And what about me? How did I get out of my own period of intense learned helplessness about my capacity to produce peer-reviewed papers for publication? 

After a couple of unnecessary years of defeating self-talk, I realized I had been marinating in my own negative juices. To break out, I needed outside input. I hired one of my brightest graduate students to read the paper and its criticisms, and to explain what she thought I should do to address them.

I still remember the utter shame I felt that I had to pay a student and did not have enough gumption to even ask a peer to help me.

I had been greatly internalizing the rejections as something wrong with me, awfulizing my plight rather than realizing that writing for academia was a skill I had yet to learn. 

a journal filled with words

Listening to the student explain to me how she thought I should approach the paper bumped me out of my emotions and into thinking the paper might be salvageable. I suddenly realized that this was a problem to be solved, not an area of permanent disgrace. 

I reworked the paper, submitted it to yet another journal, and… it was accepted.

What can you do?

Here are five things to try. They are my go-to’s when I find myself sinking into the fog’s abyss.

  • If you find yourself awfulizing, stop. Get curious. Is it truly as permanent, pervasive, and uncontrollable as you imagine? Could it just be a temporary, limited situation, and is there another approach you could try?

As my sister Judy used to tell me, 95% of the things I worry about never come to pass. My imagination is leading me down the wrong path and I have the capacity to find hidden opportunities.

  • If you are too deep in the fog to do even that much, write sentences about your dilemma, one at a time. Yes, just write sentences. They don’t have to be coherent or logical. Get your racing thoughts out of your head and onto paper. This slows those thoughts down, until eventually, you can peel off thoughts to focus on.
  • Try exercise, deep breathing, or meditation – anything to take yourself out of the depressing, terrifying situation into a different state of being and engaging with the world.
  • Try Invictus or your preferred self-affirmations.3 Say it aloud, over and over. Slowly.
  • Find someone to talk with. When we are in the fog, we retreat into ourselves. A sympathetic friend – or better yet, a therapist or a coach – can offer a different perspective.

This is what the graduate student provided me. I couldn’t keep recirculating the same sad thoughts of doom while listening to her calmly analyzing the paper and suggesting how to fix it. My prefrontal cortex – the cognitive parts of my brain – kicked in.

These steps are supported by science and my own tearful experiences. We do have the capacity to move out of the fog of learned helplessness into learned optimism. 

It’s not a matter of putting on a happy face or putting on blinders, pretending all is well. 

Rather, we make the choice to engage in the steps that will break the spell of hopelessness and move into new possibilities to get where we want to go, achieve what we want to achieve, and be the person we want to be.

We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the people who are counting on us, and we owe it to the world that needs what we have to offer.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How do you respond to discouraging feedback? Are you able to learn from it?
  2. What steps can you take to convert pessimism to optimism?

Conscious Change skills
covered in this blog post

  • Test assumptions
    • Consciously test your negative assumptions
    • Look for multiple points of view
  • Conscious use of self
    • Accept responsibility for your own contributions
    • Seek to understand others’ perspectives
    • Adopt a growth mindset
    • Build resilience through self-affirmation

#ConsciousChange   #LearnedOptimism    #BrainFog

Please explain your answers in the comments.
Available to order at your favorite retailer:
Bookshop.org logo
porchlight logo
amazon logo
barnes and noble logo

Transform inspiration into action. Check out our exclusive offerings.

🔍 Find out whether our leadership development courses are right for you.

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings.

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.  

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com

1 Villines, Zawn (Feb 10, 2023). What to know about anxiety and brain fog. Medical News Today.

2 Seligman, Martin (1998). Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

3 Latting, Jean (Sept 28, 2023). Rewiring negative self-talk: How to go from “no I can’t” to “yes I can.”