Learned Helplessness

Have you ever felt stuck in a situation? Felt like you cannot escape or there is no other way to deal with the problem? No other way than just letting it happen?

Something makes you feel that you have no control over the situation?


You must have heard about the famous dog and saliva Pavalov jokes. Seligman, an American psychologist was working on the same experiment and stumbled upon something interesting. He found out that when a person is given an unpleasant situation to deal with repeatedly, for the first few times, they stop trying to avoid or escape it, even if it’s possible.

On the contrary, when someone else is given the same situation for the first time found a way to escape it.

He conceptualised this as “Learned Helplessness”.


Even tho such concepts cannot always be generalised to every individual, Seligman was able to point out that our prior learning can impact our behaviour and was also able to explain how, so many individuals chose to remain passive or accept a negative situation, despite them having the ability to change it or deal with it.


So what exactly is Learned Helplessness?


If someone is facing a difficult or uncontrollable situation recurrently, they learn that they have no control or, are helpless if anything bad happens even though a point comes where change is possible or control is available. The past experiences start to make the individual believe that they can’t avoid it, where they have trained their brains and themselves to believe that they have no control over things and so, they won’t even try to do so.


You must have seen friends or family members find it difficult to take a decision even when the answers is right there in front of them. Maybe it’s time to address certain beliefs they have that might not be true.


Seligman also added 3 points onto the concept of learned Helplessness, which were,

  • Increase in stress levels,

  • Becoming passive in the face of trauma, and

  • Difficulty in learning response that can control trauma.

When we start limiting our beliefs of what we can and cannot achieve, we create a cycle of self defeating thoughts, and when you catch yourself in this cycle, you will realise that your quality of productivity and motivation often suffers.


Links with mental health?


Learned Helplessness is not a singular issue that individuals face, rather it is an added condition linked with or present along with depression, ptsd, or other health problems. People who suffer from chronic health conditions also are likely to develop the feeling of helplessness, due to not being able to do anything to make their health better.


Learned Helplessness in children:

Low confidence, self esteem, not asking for help, low motivation, if success is achieved, crediting luck and not their capabilities are some of the characteristics that are included in learned helplessness among children. This often presents itself at school, especially academically.


Learned Helplessness in adults:

In adults we see it when he/she is not using or choosing to learn adaptive responses to a problematic situation. Some examples can be - a person finding it difficult to lose weight when they try different diets, and soon giving up after trying because they have seen it work for others but it might not be for them, without even considering exercise as an option. Another example can be when people find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship because they think that they can never escape their abuser, even when there is help and support available.


Why is it that Learned Helplessness is picked up by only few and not all?

The risk of having learned helplessness increases with repeated traumatic experiences, but this doesn’t mean that everyone who goes through such traumatic experiences will develop learned helplessness. How we tend to explain the situation to ourselves plays an important role here. If one has a negative explanatory style, they will look at the things being unavoidable and a result of their shortcomings. A person with positive explanatory style will likely not do so.

However, it is important to know that if you feel stuck in a bad situation, you don't need to be experiencing learned helplessness. We must all be vary of some bad days, compared to being in vicious cycle of negative events and subsequent negative thoughts.


How can you deal with Learned Helplessness?


As mentioned above, changing our explanatory style can help in reducing the cycle of learned helplessness. Instead of using a negative explanation, consciously trying to create an optimistic or even a realistic narrative can help in changing out outlook towards things.

One of the most common treatments for this is CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).

There are also instances where learned helplessness is dealt with another mental illness in therapy, along with specific medications.


Therapy in general, helps people with:


- feeling supported

- work through emotions

- develop ways to deal with learned helplessness

- work on self esteem

- have a safe space to address trauma

- figure out the “why” of things

- feel motivated

- learn to set goals and tasks for themselves

Learned Helplessness impacts an individual’s mental health and social relationships along with certain aspects of their life. However, it can be overcome with therapy and lifestyle changes. If you feel like you are experiencing learned helplessness, don’t shy away from talking to a professional about it. Someone who can help you take control back in your hands.


“The real truth is, your ability to choose can only be forgotten. It cannot be taken away.” - Greg McKeown

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