Defeats and helplessness

Although there is good evidence that loss of control and beliefs about control are powerfully implicated in depression (Peterson et al., 1993), the point about social defeat and social harassment is that this is not just about losing control—though, of course, in one sense (loss of) control is key to a defeat and/or a harassed position. Rather, it is the knock-on effects of a defeat that are crucial, especially the way a defeat forces a change in social standing, comparison of oneself with others, and social behaviour (Gilbert, 2000a). It should be noted that in animal studies of learned helplessness (LH) (such as that induced by inescapable shock), helpless states tend to remit quite quickly, within 48-72 hours or so, and this has been a serious criticism of this model of depression (see Irwin, 2000). Recognising this, Weiss et al. (2000), rather than explore whether different types of stressor produce different effects, chose to try to breed a strain of rats that would show a longer-lasting response to inescapable shock. They failed, although they did find a strain that showed early life hyperactivity, and when young showed a more prolonged LH response.

Not only is prolonged exposure to shock a totally unnatural type of stress, but it is also a stress that requires no change in social communication, social cognition, or social activity. However, not only has social agonism been a common stressor for many animals for millions of years, because competition for resources can be acute, but also there is a range of evolved behaviours for coping with it; for example, submissive behaviour and defeat-demobilisation. Moreover, in response to a defeat (or ongoing harassment if an animal tries to mount a challenge), animals must change their social behaviour and downgrade exploration and acquisitive, confident social engagement behaviours—those very behaviours associated with PA. Furthermore, unlike shock-stress, social defeats and attacks can have long-term effects. Meerlo et al. (1996) found that a single episode of social defeat in rats could have measurable effects on biological rhythms, and eating and social behaviour in an open field up to 7 days later. Indeed, animals can die shortly after social defeats—and not from their injuries (MacLean, 1990; Von Holst, 1986). What emerges from the literature, then, is that defeats can produce rapid shifts (discontinuities) in functioning and be long lasting.

Gilbert et al. (2002), using a structural equation model, found that feeling defeated had specific effects on PA. Rooke and Birchwood (1998) found that loss of status, sense of defeat, and entrapment were also powerfully related to depression in people suffering from schizophrenia. In an interesting test of the defeat/entrapment model, Willner and Goldstein (2001) studied 76 stressed mothers and found that entrapment and defeat mediated the link between depression and stress. It is when stress is associated with a sense of personal defeat and entrapment that stress is associated with depression. In another test of the defeat and social-rank theory, Brenninkmeyer et al. (2001) explored symptoms of burnout (which has overlapping features with depression such as fatigue). Burnout interacted with feelings of inferiority to affect significantly levels of depression. Such findings need replication of course, and the direction of causality remains unclear.

From their studies of torture victims, Ehlers et al. (2000) have also argued that mental defeat is different from loss of control (helplessness). Clearly, to be subjected to torture is to lose control, but some people can still retain a sense of their identity. It is those who feel mentally defeated that suffer the higher depression and chronic PTSD symptoms, even after controlling for severity of the torture.

Defeat Depression

Defeat Depression

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