What Learned Helplessness Says About You — And How To Change Your Ways For Good

Updated December 22, 2022by ReGain Editorial Team

What does it mean when you feel powerless to help yourself? If you’re asking this question, you may be one of the many of people who experience learned helplessness each year in the US. People who experience learned helplessness may often feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and feel as though they are out of options to change or improve their lives' adverse circumstances.

Work Through Learned Helplessness And Other Concerns In Therapy

In this article, we explain the theory of learned helplessness that can occur in humans. We also talk the effects of learned helplessness on depression and discuss ways to ultimately overcome learned helplessness. Lastly, we provide resources for those with experience learned helplessness to get support.

The Theory Of Learned Helplessness In A Nutshell

Learned helplessness theory was discovered in 1967 by famous psychology researchers Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. The theory of learned helplessness took shape when Seligman and Maier conducted research on animals (and subsequently human beings) that showed the concept of how learned helplessness applies to both humans and animals.

The learned helplessness model was developed when the researchers realized that learned helplessness in humans mirrors the experience of learned helplessness in animals exposed to the same conditions. As a result, the concept of learned helplessness in humans also applies to animals. In fact, almost the same number of humans and animals developed learned helplessness during the research studies.

The learned helplessness model shows that when humans and animals are presented with adverse circumstances from which they feel they have no escape, they are likely to stop trying to help themselves and accept the negative consequences without protest, despite the fact that escape may be, in fact, (and often is) possible.

The Factors Studied That Contribute To Learned Helplessness In Humans And Animals Are:

  • Exposure To Adverse Circumstances Or Pain. (In this case, a loud noise like a siren.) Researchers conducted a study to show how people develop learned helplessness. In the experiments of the development of learned helplessness in people, participants were exposed to adverse circumstances that caused temporary discomfort.
  • Removal Of An Exit Or A Way To Stop The Discomfort. When participants were exposed to negative external stimuli, their options for escaping the situation were limited or non-existent. Research studies show that the participants who had limited opportunities to escape chose to use those options more often than participants who believed they had no options.

  • The Eventual Development Of Learned Helplessness. In humans and animals, this development is seen when subjects in the study stopped trying to help themselves or escape the adverse environment.

The Seligman and Maier experiments showed that learned helplessness is a theory in which animals learned that outcomes were independent regardless of their responses, which in turn undermined their attempts to escape.

Learned helplessness in children and adults is apparent when people are presented with adverse circumstances from which they eventually stop trying to escape. According to psychology researchers, the concept of learned helplessness applies to learned helplessness in children, adults, and animals.

Research on learned helplessness shows that if persistent adverse outcomes are a factor, the concept of learned helplessness applies regardless of age. According to research, the generality of learned helplessness means that people become “conditioned to accept pain and suffering” without trying to find a means to escape it.

When people experience learned helplessness, the idea that they can actually escape their situation no longer affects their behavior.

Psychology researchers believe that feelings of helplessness, lack of motivation, and the perceived inability to escape contribute to learned helplessness development. The generality of learned helplessness applies regardless of age or gender. Seligman’s research studies on learned helplessness suggest that learned helplessness can be unlearned.

Alleviation of learned helplessness symptoms and behaviors usually requires professional support from medical professionals and therapists. Studies on learned helplessness treatments show that learned helplessness in children and adults can be mitigated with medical and therapeutic intervention.

The Link Between Learned Helplessness And Depression

The early research on learned helplessness in adults, children, and animals shows a direct link between learned helplessness and depression. When people and animals are repeatedly exposed to negative circumstances (from which they can’t escape), they may learn to become helpless in similar situations. In extreme cases, a person affected by learned helplessness may erroneously assume that they are helpless in all areas of their lives.

Learned helplessness in children and learned helplessness in adults is often related to feelings of helplessness and not having the power to change or overcome negative situations. Many people who have developed learned helplessness may also develop depression due to feelings of powerlessness associated with this condition.

Effects Of Learned Helplessness On Depression Development

Depressive symptoms may aggravate a sense of helplessness. Symptoms of learned helplessness in children include:

  • Inability or unwillingness to participate in age-appropriate responsibilities.
  • Refusal to make an effort in academics.
  • Lack of responsibility for older children.
  • Strong emotional reaction to failure.

People who experience the effects of learned helplessness may often feel powerless over their own lives and incapable of making a positive change. As a result of their persistent beliefs, people who experience learned helplessness often have concurrent mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Research shows that individuals with learned helplessness have become accustomed to failing or losing in one or more areas of their lives. People living with this condition may apply their inability to perform in one area to all areas of their lives. This means that people with learned helplessness often go through life feeling like a failure — and powerless to do anything to change it.

The Opposite Of Learned Helplessness

The opposite model of learned helplessness is the theory of learned optimism. This opposite theory of learned helplessness emphasizes changing the mindset of people experiencing learned helplessness to optimism. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism explains that the effects of learned helplessness can be reversed by incorporating optimistic alternatives and solutions into the equation. The main premise is that people who experience learned helplessness can benefit from being presented with optimistic alternatives.

How Did I Become So Helpless?

Some people may progressively succumb to the effects of learned helplessness over time due to life circumstances and experiences. In some cases, early childhood or adult trauma can contribute to learned helplessness in adults. For example, a child who grew up in a home where they were continually told, “you’re not good enough,” may eventually come to believe this to be true about themselves. People who experience learned helplessness were often “taught” or influenced by external events that led them to believe they are helpless or powerless.

Living with learned helplessness may feel like an unbearable burden for the person experiencing learned helplessness, as well as for their loved ones. Accommodating helpless behavior daily may at times feel overwhelming for spouses, children, and other support people in their life. Meaningful relationships can experience difficulties when we become conditioned to accept pain, suffering, or other negative consequences due to a belief in our inability to help ourselves or escape the situation.

How Do I Change My Ways?

The first step to changing learned helplessness behavior is to accept that you have the ability to change by using optimistic solutions and that you will likely need the help of a licensed therapist for support and guidance. Depression often results when people feel that it is impossible or improbable that their circumstances will change. A therapist may be able to help you develop realistic solutions and a customized blueprint for achieving your goals.

Understanding the drivers of learned helplessness proposed by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier can help you, and a therapist may help you find the best motivational, emotional, and cognitive solutions for your unique situation. Following is an overview of how learned helplessness can be further broken down into the categories of universal or personal helplessness.

Universal Helplessness – An individual may feel that a situation as a whole cannot be changed on a global scale. Universal helplessness directly links to depression and can occur when an individual experiences repeated negative impacts or situations in their internal and external lives. People who experience universal helplessness where they feel that external consequences are causing negative outcomes beyond their control often experience severe depression as a result.

Personal Helplessness – In this model of helplessness, an individual may feel that others have the power to influence their circumstances — but not themselves. As a result, people who experience personal helplessness may experience negative self-talk and engage in negative behaviors. They may believe that they are personally at fault for what has happened to them and have no power to change.

Talking to a licensed therapy expert can help you undo the damage learned helplessness has caused in your life.


Work Through Learned Helplessness And Other Concerns In Therapy

If you are experiencing challenges in your life and you feel helpless and feel as though things won’t improve, it’s important to remember you’re not alone. ReGain is an online therapy platform that can match you with a licensed therapist who understands what you're going through. They can provide tools and guidance to help you overcome obstacles you’re facing and develop positive strategies to get through life’s adversities in the future. Reach out today to begin your journey to a better you.

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