• Jennifer Barnick

Learned Helplessness: What is It, and How Do You Overcome It?

Hopeless person

Photo Source: Pixabay

“When humans or other animals come to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless. […] It is a learned behavior conditioned through experiences in which the subject either truly has no control over his circumstances or believes that he has no control over his circumstances.” (Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure) by Courtney Ackerman, March 24, 2018, postitivepsychologyprogram.com) In the late nineteen sixties, psychologists, Martin Seligman, and Steven Maier discovered a repeatable phenomenon. They separated the dogs into three groups: in one group they shocked the dogs but had a lever the dogs could push to stop the shock. In one group they strapped the dogs in a harness but did not administer any shocks. Finally, in the third group, they strapped the dog in a harness and shocked the dog with the dog having no way to escape the pain. Next, they built a box divided by a low barrier that the dogs could easily jump. Shocks were administered on one side of the box, and the other side was shock-free. The dogs who originally had access to a lever to stop the shocks, and the dogs who were harnessed but not shocked, quickly jumped over the low barrier to avoid being shocked. However, the harnessed and shocked dogs who had no way of escaping being shocked simply stood and continued to be shocked even though they simply could have jumped the low barrier to escape the pain. The two psychologists named this learned helplessness. When an animal or person is exposed to something painful in which they have no power to escape, they become conditioned to not try escaping—even in circumstances when they could have escaped from or avoided suffering. (Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure) by Courtney Ackerman, March 24, 2018, postitivepsychologyprogram.com)

Learned helplessness (LH) can be a debilitating condition, and more and more people are being affected by it. “The theory of learned helplessness also has been applied to many conditions and behaviors, including clinical depression, aging, domestic violence, poverty, discrimination, parenting, academic achievement, drug abuse, and alcoholism.” (Learned Helplessness by Jeannette L. Nolen, britannica.com) A common form of LH is seen in school children. Early difficulties with reading have been shown to condition the child into a state of LH. Over time, without a positive intervention what began as a difficulty with reading can snowball into the child feeling that they are dumb and incapable of learning. Often, the child increasingly avoids school work and essentially gives up on school. The consequences can be catastrophic—sending the child down a path of depression and lack of economic opportunity in adulthood—based again, not on the actual child’s intelligence or potential, but the child’s belief that they are unable to learn anything. (Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure) by Courtney Ackerman, March 24, 2018, postitivepsychologyprogram.com)

Learned helplessness is even an important issue in dentistry. They found that children and adults with a history of child abuse as well as the elderly (who often suffer from LH) can develop LH regarding their dental health. Patients who suffer from LH often avoid going to the doctor or do not comply with the doctor’s instructions. Many times over, these patients suffer intense pain—pain that can be fixed by the dentist—but refuse to call a doctor and address the issue. Other ways people suffering from LH regarding the dentist will make it difficult for the doctor to treat them, “Fears of being trapped in the dental chair, claustrophobia, being unable to breathe, and feelings of choking or severe gagging that interferes with dental treatments were reported.” (Learned Helplessness by Sivakumar Nuvvula, Contemporary Clinical Dentistry, 2016 Oct-Dec, PubMed.gov) In searching PubMed for other academic papers on Learned Helplessness, patients with chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis were also seen to often develop LH.

In my research, it became very clear that LH not only affects a lot of people; it can lead to destructive and even deadly behaviors, as in the case with Battered Women Syndrome (a form of LH). Early childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect were cited as reasons for developing LH, but also chronic disease, aging, and other painful events that people had little to no ability to stop or control also contributed to the development of LH. However, LH can arise in seemingly less-severe ways as in the case with a bad romantic relationship or horrible boss, and it’s important to note that even though a bad breakup or a bad boss might not seem as intense as LH brought on by child abuse, learned helplessness can be a real life destroyer. “This level of helplessness can make them lose interest in goals and activities they once enjoyed or even loved. They may feel so powerless that they give up the pursuit of their dreams, whether it’s the dream of an interesting and successful career or the dream of getting married and having a family.” (How to Reverse Learned Helplessness by Kim Saeed, psychcentral.com)

The good news is that learned helplessness can be overcome. Many doctors prescribe drugs for some of the common symptoms of LH like anxiety and depression, however, because LH is a conditioned response the way out of LH needs to be approached much like the way it came on in the first place. “Therapy is also a good choice for many people struggling with learned helplessness. Those who feel hopeless can benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional to explore the origins of their helplessness, replace old and harmful beliefs with new and healthy beliefs, and develop a healing sense of compassion for themselves.” (Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure) by Courtney Ackerman, March 24, 2018, postitivepsychologyprogram.com) Another proven route is cognitive behavioral therapy. By learning to pay attention to your self-talk and then disciplining yourself to challenge and replace your negative thoughts over time your brain really will change. This is called neuroplasticity. "Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury or disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations and changes in the environment." (medicinenet.com) There are a lot of really great books in your library on cognitive behavioral therapy. I have used cognitive behavioral therapy for various things and have found it to be just short of miraculous.

Today, learned helplessness is affecting more people than ever. (How to Reverse Learned Helplessness by Kim Saeed, psychcentral.com) LH can be a very destructive condition that luckily can be overcome. Child abuse, chronic disease, and aging are common causes of LH. Additionally, other things like abusive or unhealthy relationships, learning disabilities, and poverty can bring on LH. However, there are proven ways a person can finally get over their overwhelming sense of helplessness and the depression that follows in its wake.

If you would like to take a test seeing where you fall on the optimistic scale click here. The test was devised by the same doctor who discovered learned helplessness.

Jennifer Barnick

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.

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