When my literary agent Michele read the first draft of my book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, she said, “Lissa, before I read your book, I honestly thought my body was none of my business. It was my doctor’s business. I thought my body was like my car. When my car breaks, I hand it over to my auto mechanic and expect my mechanic to fix it and hand it back to me. I expected the same from my doctor. But after reading Mind Over Medicine, I now know that my body is my business, that nobody knows my body better than me and that my health is my responsibility.”


In my decades of experience working with patients as a physician, Michele’s formerly passive approach to her health is not uncommon. Many patients take this auto mechanic approach to health, handing over their bodies to doctors they may not even screen as carefully as they choose their auto mechanics, never questioning what the doctor says, seeking clarity when they’re confused, asking for second opinions when they doubt the diagnosis or treatment plan of the doctor, or taking their bodies elsewhere when something doesn’t feel right.

Essentially these patients, especially the ones who have been labeled with a “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal” illness, have been programmed to believe that Western medicine has done all it can do and they are therefore at the mercy of doctors who can’t cure them. They often come to experience what physician and researcher Martin Seligman coins “learned helplessness.”

When We Learn Helplessness

In one landmark study, Madelon Visintainer, a colleague of Seligman’s, performed a study on three groups of rats. The first group was given a mild escapable shock, which the rats could avoid once they learned how. The second group was given a mild inescapable shock, which rendered them helpless. The third group was given no shock at all.

Before setting about shocking these poor rats, Visintainer implanted a few cancer cells on each rat’s flank. The cancer was the kind that would invariably kill the rat if the rat’s immune system failed to fend off the cancer. Visintainer carefully controlled the number of cancer cells she implanted, such that she could expect that, under normal conditions, about half the rats would reject the tumor and live. The other half would succumb and die.

Everything external was perfectly controlled – their diet, how they were housed, the tumor burden. The only difference between the three groups of rats was their psychological experience. The rats experiencing escapable shocks quickly learned how to game the system, ultimately escaping the shocks after going through a learning curve. The rats getting inescapable shocks were learning helplessness. And the unshocked rats were just minding their own business, with neither the empowering challenge of figuring out how to escape from the shocks or the trauma of getting shocked.

As expected, within a month, 50% of the unshocked rats had died, while the other 50% of unshocked rats fought off the tumor. But curiously, the rats given escapable shocks, who learned how to master the system, rejected the tumor 70% of the time, giving them a survival advantage over the unshocked rats. The rats who couldn’t escape the shocks, however, wound up listless and helpless, and only 27% rejected the tumor.

The Health Dangers Of Learned Helplessness

Based on this data, researchers concluded that learned helplessness in rats who couldn’t escape the shocks must have suppressed the immune response known to fight off cancer cells in tumors of this sort. Further study of these helpless rats found that, indeed, inescapable shocks weaken the immune system. We know that the bodies of both humans and rats have natural self-repair mechanisms that not only fight cancer cells, but other disease.

But one of the important natural self-repair mechanisms of the helpless rats was deactivated. The T-cells of the helpless rats no longer multiplied and got down to the business of fighting off cancer cells when they came across invading outsiders. Natural killer cells, also important in fighting off cancers and other foreign invaders, lost their natural killer abilities. These studies confirmed what researchers had suspected.

Optimists Are Healthier Than Pessimists

Psychological states can directly affect the outcome of remission from some diseases, at least those that are immune-mediated, as many cancers are.

This may explain why optimists are healthier than pessimists.  In addition to the data suggesting that those who learn helplessness may be at higher risk of cancer, studies show that optimists have a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimists and are 45% less likely to die from other causes.

When bad things happen, pessimists have a tendency to view the negative events as permanent (“It will always be bad”), pervasive (“It affects not just this bad event, but everything,”), and personal (“This bad event is all my fault.”) Optimists, on the other hand, view negative events as temporary, specific, and not personal.

Pessimists Learn Helplessness

Because of their healthier explanatory styles in the face of negative life events, optimists are more likely to learn healthy adaptations in response to life’s shocks, making them immune to states of learned helplessness. Pessimists, on the other hand, feel like life’s shocks are inescapable, and like the listless, helpless rats, they get depressed and their immune systems weaken. Over the course of a lifetime, fewer episodes of learned helplessness may keep the immune system stronger, reduce stress responses and the negative health outcomes that accompany them, and make disease less likely.

But as the patient, you don’t have to be the helpless rat getting repetitively shocked. You can learn to be a proactive patient, and doing so has been scientifically proven to improve your health outcomes. (Get tips on how to be a proactive patient by downloading my free Self-Healing Kit).

Are You Ready To Be A Proactive Patient?

Tell us how you avoid helplessness and act as an empowered patient in the comments.

With faith in your ability to make your body your business,


P.S. Don’t miss early bird registration for Hay House’s I Can Do It! Pasadena where I’ll be speaking with Nick Ortner, Dr. Brian Weiss, Doreen Virtue and countless other spiritual powerhouses. Early bird rate ends 8/12/13. Click here for more details.

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  1. Lissa I was born with CP & other birth defects. From the time of my birth I was cut open & experimented on with seemingly no choice in these matters. Of course my parents gave consent…I`m now 54 years old & have only recently (in the past few months) taken charge of my health.I was having major health issues unrelated to any of the birth defects, but feeling totally powerless with doctors that seemed to not have a clue. Changing my diet & exercise habits as well as my thoughts have brought me to a place I have`nt been to in years…Clear & dynamic health!! And I had NO idea how bad things were until I was out of the quicksand. Lol. Thanks for your knowledge & support

  2. I avoid helplessness by deciding not to be ignorant about healthy diet. I see so many people who are “trying to lose weight” succumb to the trendy quick fixes like gluten-free, low-fat or low-carb. But they could empower themselves by truly learning about food and nutrition and the best sources of nutrients that are vital to true health – not just the waistline. I’ve taken the time to read many books about food and decided to become a vegetarian last year. I know that I am what I eat and I’d much rather be a bunch of broccoli than a bunch of bacon!!

  3. Having dealt with some debilitating food intolerances over the last twenty years, and being blown off by a lot of doctors who claimed “it’s all in your head” and tried to put me on antidepressants, I quickly realized that I would have to solve the problem myself. Which I largely have, by experimenting with diet, meditation, EFT, and other modalities, to a great degree of success.

    So I highly recommend getting educated about whatever health problems you may have – something that is quite possible to do with the advent of the internet. Never take a doctor’s word as law. It’s quite possible that you are smarter than they are, and in today’s rushed, drug-oriented culture of healthcare, I can virtually guarantee that you are far more interested in your own health and well-being. Keep calm and research on, and leave drugs as a last resort! 🙂

  4. Lisa great article! As a health care RN with Emergency care focus and family medicinefor over 20 years I personally feel the majority of patients fall in the category of rats with inescapable shocks, or those proactive being knowledgeable enough to avoid the avoidable shocks..

    While others mention external factors as exercise, nutrition can be considered beneficial or necessary by many it is still part of external factors affecting our health and general well-being.

    In recent research in the God Formula by Dr Jeffrey A Martin he uses empirical research to provide evidence we are the creators of our reality. Principles of new thought as The Secret had not been researched, upon credible research it didn’t work. The primary reason is each individual has to find the vision, the lifestyle the hope that inspires them. As the adage “like attracts like”.

    So many philosophies as well as medical professionals, agree as in Buddhist philosophy ” life is suffering” We alone can take an external pill, food…exercise. It is truly our optimism and hope that grants us now, a future and a hope.

    As I stumble around the shocks of life…It is an individual decision and plan for each person ( much better explained in your literature and such as Dr Jeffrey Martins). Each one of us must choose and follow the path of the most joy.

    I love the AA saying of “fake it till you make it….because at one point you have made it your reality and your joy.

    Reference Martin, Jeffrey A., The God Formula,

  5. Hi Lissa! At age 21 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition that I was told I would have for the rest of my life, I was told I would have to be on medication for the rest of my life AND I would just have to deal with the symptoms and side effects. I was overwhelmed, scared out of my mind and felt like I wasn’t getting the help I really needed/wanted. I didn’t want to suffer and just deal with it and not feel like a fully functioning adult. It took years, but after therapy, personal research/education, failures, second opinon’s and incredible determination I am finally in a place that I know is healthy. I am no longer on medication and I am doing pretty great! I still have challenges, but I am NOT helpless. I know I had help along the way, but I do feel a sense of pride that I took responsibility for my own health and quality of life. Your words and support have helped so much! With gratitude and Thanks, Kristin

  6. Hi Lissa, Great article. After suffering badly from anxiety and depression, it was only when took 100% responsibility for my own life that I never experienced this again. Before this it was a recurring problem in my life. I felt like I was going round in circles and no-one told me what the problem was. I am very determined and an optimist so I couldnt except the explanations I was provided by my GPs. For this I am eternally thankful. What I found, transformed not only the anxiety adn depression but my whole life. Thank you.

  7. Hi Lissa, This is a topic close to my heart. I was diagnosed with with a brain tumor (grade II astrocytoma) in July 2010. I was diagnosed only 1 week before my dear dad passed away from lung cancer after a year of torturous chemo/radiation treatments. During my dad’s illness I felt helpless and honestly I had grown up feeling that I had no power. Once my own diagnosis came, I used my dad’s experience to propel me full on into holistic health. I rejected chemo and radiation, I had a surgical biopsy but not removal, and have done nothing but diet, natural supplements, Young Living essential oils (so much so that I now sell them!) and processing through the repressed emotions and thought patterns that made me manifest this condition. At first it was a fight for me to survive for my kids and husband and to prove the doctors (who gave me a death sentence) wrong. Now it is about owning my power. I am thrilled to say that I have never felt better, never looked better and I actively inspire people everyday to embrace their own innate ability to heal. Oh yeah, and my tumor hasn’t grown in 3 years 🙂 Some day it will vanish…I know it with all my heart! For now life is as good as it gets…. Erin Pizzo

    • Great courage and inspiration, Erin. What if instead you referred to it as “the tumor” and stopped claiming it as “yours” to support you in letting it go completely? I’m picturing it gone for you from that new thought form 🙂

      • wonderful advice! Thank you Karin. “the” tumor is on its way out!

  8. Thank you Lissa for being a voice for reweaving the world of medicine!

    Sometimes we can only remember our place in the universe by being temporarily railroaded by symptoms and a diagnosis. The danger in becoming accustomed to the mantle of disease and taking it on as part of our identity is significant. We can become homogenized by a disease pattern at the moment when we most need to break away and discover the raw simplicity of our life’s meaning.

    It is sad to consider how many lives are short-changed and spirits broken by the word “incurable”. A friend of mine likes to say “we are all dying of a sexually transmitted disease…better start living on your own terms today”.

    The seeds of change are in thinking about our personal whys, whats and whens.

    My project http://www.QSELFCARE.com is tea time for the mind when change is needed.

  9. I have to say I had the opposite happen. It was only because my doctor’s didn’t know how to help my condition that I got involved more with my health. Although I’m not sure how much work people expect from a 12 year old. But I realized that doctors are only humans at that age so I started doing all of my own research. If something was going to get screwed up I would be the one to screw it up. Of course I let them give me suggestions but I always took everything with a grain of salt and a lot of research. And yes, many doctors thought that I was crazy and an idiot but I’m alive far past the expiration date they gave me because I listened to myself.

  10. In the 1980s, I suffered from situational depression and was treated by a psychologist who used Neurolinguistic training that I found helpful. I recently asked my psychiatrist if she knew of any one in her profession in our area that uses Neurolinguistic training. She didn’t and asked why I would be interested. Essentially, I think she’s unfamiliar and skeptical. She’s a normal doctor and a good woman.

    So what am I doing? I requested the latest book on Neurolinguistic training from the library, I’ll read it and look for a practitioner that I can afford. I’ve looked online for folks in my area and haven’t found an answer there. So I’ll learn more and I won’t think Doctor knows best. I can heal myself from “life stopping” problems with Fibromyalgia.

    Taking charge one day at a time,


  11. I overcame my helplessness as a chronic back pain sufferer by figuring out what my orthopedic doctor’s criteria was for ordering an MRI. He was convinced from an Xray that I had a couple of deteriorating disks that caused my pain. I was having numb toes now and severe back pain at night in bed, which was new. He said he ordered MRIs before back surgery which wouldn’t help me or for epidural injection. I told him I wanted an epidural injection and he immediately ordered the MRI which showed I had a spinal cord tumor. Very soon after I started having bladder problems and I found a neurosurgeon before things got dramatically worse. This was a great lesson in being proactive and not passive and letting the doctor determine what care I got. I have insisted on what I’ve needed ever since.


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