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Learned helplessness: Examples, symptoms, and treatment

Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available.

Psychologists first described learned helplessness in 1967 after a series of experiments on animals, suggesting that their findings could apply to humans.

Learned helplessness leads to increased feelings of stress and depression. For some people, it is linked with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This article explores the state of learned helplessness and suggests some ways to overcome it.

According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness occurs when someone repeatedly faces uncontrollable, stressful situations, then does not exercise control when it becomes available.

They have “learned” that they are helpless in that situation and no longer try to change it, even when change is possible.

Once a person having this experience discovers that they cannot control events around them, they lose motivation. Even if an opportunity arises that allows the person to alter their circumstances, they do not take action.

Individuals experiencing learned helplessness are often less able to make decisions.

Learned helplessness can increase a person’s risk of depression.

Prof. Martin Seligman, one of the psychologists credited with defining learned helplessness, has detailed three key features:

  1. becoming passive in the face of trauma
  2. difficulty learning that responses can control trauma
  3. an increase in stress levels

In 1967, Prof. Seligman and Prof. Steven F. Maier first described their theory of learned helplessness.

The researchers conducted studies on dogs, in which they exposed the animals to a series of electric shocks.

The dogs that could not control the shocks eventually showed signs of depression and anxiety. Those that could press a lever to stop the shocks did not.

In follow-up research, the dogs that could not control the shocks in the first experiment did not even try to avoid the shocks, despite the fact that they could have done so by jumping over a barrier. They had learned to become helpless.

Many years later, however, Prof. Maier conducted neuroscientific research that suggested that the dogs did not, in fact, learn helplessness — instead, they had not learned control.

Prof. Seligman also coined the term “learned optimism,” which is used to challenge negative thoughts and combat learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness can impair a person’s ability to handle stressful situations.

It can also increase the risk of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Some of the symptoms commonly associated with learned helplessness include:

  • feeling a lack of control over the outcome of situations
  • failing to ask for help
  • having low self-esteem
  • decreased motivation
  • putting less effort into tasks
  • lack of persistence
  • feelings of frustration
  • passivity
  • giving up easily

Learned helplessness often occurs in response to stressful situations or traumatic experiences in which a person feels they have limited control over the outcome.

This leads to feelings of helplessness and a loss of motivation, which remain even once they have the opportunity to make changes to their circumstances.

It is particularly common among people who have experienced issues like trauma, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.

Medical professionals usually consider learned helplessness a type of thought disorder rather than a mental health condition. However, it can contribute to or worsen symptoms of several mental health conditions, including PTSD or depression.

Often, learned helplessness begins in childhood.

When caregivers do not respond appropriately to a child’s need for help, the child may learn that they cannot change their situation. If this occurs regularly, the state of learned helplessness may persist into adulthood.

For example, children with a history of prolonged abuse and neglect can develop learned helplessness and feelings of powerlessness.

Some characteristics of learned helplessness in children include:

  • low self-esteem
  • low motivation
  • low expectations of success
  • less persistence
  • not asking for help
  • ascribing a lack of success to a lack of ability
  • ascribing success to factors beyond their control, such as luck

In childhood, learned helplessness often presents itself at school. If a child studies hard in order to do well in their schoolwork but ultimately do poorly, they may feel helpless and hopeless.

Children may avoid learned helplessness by building resilience. Among the many factors that can contribute to resilience are a positive attachment to caregivers, humor, and independence.

In adults, learned helplessness presents as a person not using or learning adaptive responses to difficult situations.

People in this state typically accept that bad things will happen and that they have little control over them. They are unsuccessful in resolving issues even when there is a potential solution.

Below are some examples of situations that can lead to learned helplessness in adults:

  • Continuing to smoke despite several attempts to quit may cause a person to believe that they will always need to smoke.
  • Being unable to lose weight after making various dietary or lifestyle changes may cause a person to believe it will never happen and give up trying.
  • Leaving a situation of domestic abuse can be very difficult. Some people having this experience tend to leave several times before doing so for good. A person may believe they can never escape the situation, even when help and support are available.

A person’s experiences can increase their risk of developing learned helplessness. It typically begins after experiencing repeated traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or domestic violence.

However, not everyone who goes through these things will develop learned helplessness.

Explanatory styles also play a role in its development. An explanatory style is a person’s way of explaining an event to themselves.

People with a pessimistic explanatory style — causing them to view negative events as unavoidable and resulting from their shortcomings — are more likely to experience learned helplessness. People with an optimistic explanatory style are less likely to do so.

Over time, learned helplessness can impact a person’s performance at work or school.

In fact, some research suggests that learned helplessness, anxiety, and low perceived self-efficacy could negatively affect performance in specific academic subjects, such as mathematics.

In addition to impairing academic success, students who develop learned helplessness during adolescence may also carry these practices into adulthood.

This can influence a person’s work life and social and psychological well-being.

Learned helplessness may also increase the risk of certain mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Learned helplessness is linked with depression, PTSD, and other health problems.

Research indicates that it increases feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression in both humans and animals.

For example, one study on individuals who had experienced domestic violence found that they experienced high levels of fear, potentially leading to learned helplessness that may be preventing them from leaving the abusive situation.

People with learned helplessness can overcome it.

The most common treatment is therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people overcome these types of challenges by changing how they think and act.

In therapy, people can:

  • receive support and encouragement
  • explore the origins of learned helplessness
  • develop ways to decrease feelings of helplessness
  • identify negative thoughts that contribute to learned helplessness
  • identify behaviors that reinforce learned helplessness
  • replace thoughts and behaviors with more positive and beneficial ones
  • improve self-esteem
  • work through challenging emotions
  • address instances of abuse, neglect, and trauma
  • set goals and tasks for themselves

Some older research also suggests that exercise can prevent learned helplessness in animals.

Though there is no research into this particular effect of exercise in humans, physical activity usually benefits mental health and can reduce or prevent anxiety, depression, stress, and other health problems.

Eating a healthful diet, meditating, and practicing mindfulness are other lifestyle changes that can boost a person’s mental health and outlook.

Here are a few common questions about learned helplessness.

What is an example of learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness often occurs in children at school.

For example, if a child regularly performs poorly on exams even after studying, they may start to believe that preparing for tests is ineffective and won’t have any impact on their grade.

These feelings of helplessness can cause them to put less effort into schoolwork, which can negatively affect academic performance over time.

What does learned helplessness look like in adults?

In adults, learned helplessness can cause issues with a person’s relationships, work responsibilities, and psychological well-being. Additionally, it may be associated with issues like low self-esteem, passivity, and decreased motivation.

How do you break learned helplessness?

Therapy can help people modify their thoughts and actions to overcome learned helplessness. It may also help build self-esteem, increase motivation, and address any underlying issues that may be involved.

The effects of learned helplessness can be extensive, impacting a person’s mental health, relationships, and other aspects of life.

It also increases the risk of stress, depression, and low self-esteem.

Certain factors, such as a history of abuse and a pessimistic outlook, can make a person more prone to learned helplessness.

However, it is possible to overcome it with therapy and lifestyle changes.

Anyone who believes that they are experiencing learned helplessness should consider speaking with a mental health professional who can help them take control of their circumstances.

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