Learned helplessness (A guide)

learned helplessness

In this blog article we will discuss the concept of learned helplessness, what causes it, and how to overcome it. 

What is learned helplessness?  

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that occurs when a person consistently and repeatedly experiences pain, suffering, or discomfort in a situation, ultimately leading to loss of hope in trying to overcome these negative feelings. It occurs when a person feels helpless in this negative situation, and that any way to resolve it is completely out of their control, even if a way to control the situation exists. This article will delve further into learned helplessness, how it was developed, how someone develops learned helplessness, and how one can overcome learned helplessness. 

A common scenario where learned helplessness is an issue is with smokers- smokers may try to quit smoking many times, and fail to succeed each time. After a certain number of attempts and failures, smokers may become discouraged. They feel helpless in this endeavor and believe that quitting is impossible to achieve. They convince themselves that they do not hold any control over the situation. They have ‘learned’ that their situation has no value and they are not trying to change it, even if change is possible. Other common scenarios involve domestic abuse, children living in an abusive or neglectful home, children unable to perform well in school, dementia or physical deficits in the elderly, trouble losing weight despite dietary and lifestyle changes, among many others.

Learned helplessness (A guide)

What other feelings is Learned Helplessness associated with?

Learned helplessness is commonly associated with feelings of stress and discouragement. For some, it is related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and it is also found to increase one’s risk for Depression. Oftentimes learned helplessness may lead to a lack of confidence in social situations, or social anxiety. This often leads to loneliness in already suffering. Learned helplessness could also lead to low self-esteem. This often derives from the belief that other people are capable of solving problems when they themselves cannot. 

Martin E.P. Seligman,one of the lead psychologists in researching and discovering learned helplessness, states that there are three main components to learned helplessness:

Becoming passive in the face of grief

Difficulty in learning, seeing, or accepting the solutions to control grief

An increase in stress levels

How was Learned Helplessness first discovered?

Learned helplessness is a term first discovered by psychologists in the late 1960’s, when Steven F. Maier and Martin E.P. Seligman observed learned helplessness in animals. They ran experiments with dogs, then later, observed the same phenomenon in rats and in elephants. Later, Maier and Seligman applied what they learned to humans. 

What they originally observed began with dogs who were conditioned to feeling an electric shock from the floor after hearing a certain noise. Maier and Seligman then gave the dogs a barrier to jump over so that they would no longer be standing on the electric floor. They noticed that the dogs stayed put. They did not choose to escape the electric floor.

Maier and Seligman then observed dogs that were split into three groups. The first group of dogs were in harnesses, but were soon released from those harnesses. The second group of dogs were in harnesses and subject to electric shocks. The electric shocks would stop if the dogs pressed a button with their noses. The third group of dogs were in harnesses and subject to electric shocks. This group did not have access to the button- they were unable to control the electric shocks. All the dogs were placed in a shuttle box. They too were given a barrier so that they could escape the shuttle box as well as the electric shocks, like the first experiment. The first and second groups both escaped the box by jumping over the barrier. The third group stayed put. They were unaware that there was an option to escape. These dogs learned that nothing they could do would allow them to avoid being shocked by the floor. These dogs had believed that they were helpless and powerless.  

Learned Helplessness in Adults

In adults, learned helplessness could manifest in many different ways. People may tend to ignore or have the inability to see positivity in otherwise negative situations. People do not believe they have any positive control over a negative situation either, and they are not likely to take the initiative to try to solve their problems, nor try to help themselves out of a negative situation. 

Below are some examples of scenarios that may lead to adult learned helplessness:

-Smokers unable to quit smoking after multiple attempts to do so.

-Failure to lose weight after multiple attempt to do so, or even after various dietary and lifestyle changes are made.

-Failure to leave abusive relationships; people may find it difficult to remove themselves from this type of situation and eventually do not believe that leaving is even an option in their control. 

Learned helplessness (A guide)

Learned Helplessness in Children

Learned helplessness can develop in childhood, depending on the environment. children grow up in. When children need help but have no help, they are left with the impression that nothing they do will change their situation. Repeated experiences that reinforce these feelings of worthlessness and frustration make them feel that they are unable to escape an unhealthy environment, and that this particular way of life is how they are destined to live. Children raised in institutional settings, for example, often show signs of childhood helplessness, as well as children who grow up in a home of abuse and neglect.

Some common symptoms of childhood helplessness include:

Low self-esteem

Passivity

Poor motive

Hopelessness

Lack of effort

Frustration

Procrastination

Inability to ask for help

Learned helplessness can also lead to anxiety, depression, or both. When children feel unable to control past events in their lives, they feel that future events are out of their control. Because they believe that nothing they do will ever change the outcome of a particular time, children often start thinking that they should not worry about putting in effort towards their future.

Children often develop learned helplessness in the educational setting. If a child tries hard in school, but is unable to grasp certain concepts despite various efforts, the child may lose the motivation to keep putting effort into schoolwork, leading to worse grades. This feeling of learned helplessness in the classroom could eventually affect a child’s outlook on life outside of the classroom- children may often come to feel despondent and unmotivated. 

Learned helplessness (A guide)

Learned Helplessness in the Elderly

Learned helplessness is very common in the elderly due to persistent exposure to situations they feel that is out of their control, either due to physical weakness, dementia, or some other deficit. Many elderly patients feel a loss of autonomy, which may ultimately lead to learned helplessness. Residing in an institutional setting oftentimes also contributes to the development of learned helplessness.

Types of Learned Helplessness

There are two types of learned helplessness:

-Universal helplessness: The belief that there is no possible way, and that no one is able to control or help a certain situation.

-Personal helplessness: The belief that they themselves are unable to control or to find a solution to a problem, however, they believe someone else may be able to.

Learned helplessness (A guide)

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about learned helplessness:

What is an example of learned helplessness?

Like mentioned previously, one example of learned helplessness is when a smoker has attempted to quit smoking, and was unable to do so after multiple attempts, the smoker becomes discouraged and becomes convinced that the smoking habit is out of their control. A second example is when someone is involved in an abusive relationship and they feel that they do not have the option to leave. A third common example is when a child performs poorly on tests in school multiple times, even after attempts to study, and the child feels that nothing he or she does could improve performance.

How do you fix learned helplessness?

The most crucial step towards fixing learned helplessness is to recognize and accept that it is there. Once people can recognize that they have developed learned helplessness, the next step will be to determine the cause of this mindset. One must recognize the beliefs that limit a sense of control in the situation and then to get rid of those beliefs. Instead of being a harsh critic on yourself, ask yourself why you feel the way you feel. Then, find ways to improve in those areas. It is important to think positively and with optimism, and to find ways to oppose negative thoughts. Setting goals and journaling have been shown to help develop motivation to get rid of these limiting beliefs. Take one small step toward your end goal every day. After you take each step, no matter how small, reward yourself. You should celebrate it, because every step along the way is an accomplishment.

If this is something you incorporate into your daily mindset, it will soon become a habit. It is definitely possible to unlearn learned helplessness. Self-care is extremely important to maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle. 

If someone is still suffering from learned helplessness despite attempting to overcome this on their own, it is important to reach out for professional help. It is also important to reach out for help if other feelings associated with learned helplessness arise and interfere with your daily life. Those feelings may include depression, anxiety, phobia, among many others. Researchers have found that because of the different feelings and scenarios that can be associated with learned helplessness, professional help can be catered to someone’s specific situation. This is why it is important to seek help if needed! 

Want to learn more about learned helplessness? Try these recommended readings!

Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD

In this book, written by one of the psychologists who originally studied learned helplessness, Seligman discusses this phenomenon and the depression that may arise from negative thoughts. He also focuses on how to overcome these thoughts and to approach living with positivity and optimism.

Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, and Martin E. P. Seligman

In this book, with contributions by Drs. Seligman and Maier, Christopher Peterson discusses Learned Helplessness in further depth. He discusses the way in which learned helplessness was discovered as well as all the aspects of this phenomenon that psychologists and psychiatrists still do and do not know. 

Learned Helplessness, Welfare, and the Poverty Cycle (Current Controversies) by Kristina Heitkamp

This book discusses learned helplessness with respect to its relation to poverty and socioeconomic status. It focuses on how living in poverty may affect children and families in this regard, and delves into possible solutions and ways to fight it. 

Overcome Learned Helplessness: Self-Empowerment Affirmations for Improved Self Esteem by Lexie Hay

This is an audiobook that discusses learned helplessness and ways to overcome it. It includes empowering affirmations and various relaxing ocean and beach soundtracks to help you to relax and to increase effectiveness of the audiobooks. 

References:

https://www.developgoodhabits.com/learned-helplessness/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5141652/

Learned helplessness (A guide)

Aura Des los Santos

Aura Des los Santos is a Clinical Psychologist with two masters degree in Education. One focused in Higher Educacion and the other in the research of Psychology of Education. Her experience is focused on working depression, anxiety and personal development. She frequently writes articles in the area of psychology, education, travel and general culture.