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

Updated June 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Robin Brock

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

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In this article, we explain the theory of learned helplessness in humans. We also talk about ways to overcome learned helplessness and the effects of learned helplessness on depression. Lastly, we provide you with resources for people who experience learned helplessness to get support.

The Theory Of Learned Helplessness In A Nutshell

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

The subsequently learned helplessness model was developed when the researchers 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. (Almost the same amount 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 have no escape — they are likely to stop trying to help themselves and accept the negative consequences without protest.

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

  1. 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 man, participants were exposed to adverse circumstances that caused temporary discomfort.
  2. Removal of an exit or a way to stop the pain. When participants have 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.
  3. 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 that has the opposite. We’ll talk about the alleviation of learned helplessness, and the methods psychology professionals use to overcome learned helplessness later in the article.

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 Cherry (another psychological researcher), 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, whether they can actually escape their situation no longer affects their behavior.

Psychology researchers believe that feelings of helplessness, lack of motivation, and the inability to escape contribute to learned helplessness development. The same is true for learned helplessness at fifty. 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 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

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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 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.

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

Effects Of Learned Helplessness On Depression Development

  • Depressive symptoms can 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 suffer from the effects of learned helplessness often feel powerless over their own lives. A common theme of learned helplessness is feeling powerless in your own life and incapable of making a positive change. As a result of their persistent beliefs, people who suffer from learned helplessness often have concurrent mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Psychology states that people with learned helplessness have become accustomed to failing or losing in one area of their lives. People with this condition erroneously 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 complete 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 its opposite, which is 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.

Seligman’s book-learned optimism's main premise is that people who experience learned helplessness can benefit from being presented with optimistic alternatives.

How Did I Become So Helpless?

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Many people progressively succumb to the effects of learned helplessness over time. 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 being told, “you’re not good enough,” will eventually come to believe this to be right about themselves.

People who suffer from learned helplessness were “taught” or influenced by external events that led them to believe they are helpless or powerless.

Living with learned helplessness feels like an unbearable burden for the person experiencing learned helplessness and their loved ones. Having to accommodate helpless behavior daily can become overwhelming for spouses, children, and other support people in your life. Meaningful relationships can suffer 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.

Believing that you have no control over your life often results in the related behaviors that cement this mindset. For example, people suffering from learned helplessness and substance abuse issues may make the erroneous assumption that they cannot stop abusing drugs or alcohol. As a result, they may consciously or unconsciously increase self-destructive behaviors or substance abuse as they see no other alternative.

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 to turn your situation around. Depression results when people feel that it is impossible or improbable that their circumstances will change. A therapist can 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 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, personal, and chronic helplessness.

Universal Helplessness – people feel that a situation as a whole can not be changed on a global scale. Universal helplessness directly links to depression and can occur when people experience repeated negative impacts or situations in their lives. People who suffer from universal helplessness (where they feel that external consequences are causing negative outcomes beyond their control) often suffer from severe depression as a result.

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

Chronic Helplessness – People who suffer period bouts of helplessness related to aging circumstances, living in poverty, and living with high stress and anxiety levels often exhibit transient helplessness symptoms. Triggers for helplessness in these situations include the heavy impact of negative emotions, along with burnout and aggravated depression.

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

Conclusion

We’ve learned so far that the learned helplessness model in humans is based on the research results on learned helplessness conducted by Seligman and Maier. The learned helplessness model was discovered and implemented when researchers quickly learned helplessness after repeated exposure to negative outcomes.

Research on learned helplessness shows that the more people experience negative outcomes, the less likely they are to help themselves when similar situations or issues arise. The more likely they are to develop learned helplessness. Getting online therapy support can help you begin to counteract the effects of learned helplessness on your life.

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Sessions with licensed therapists can teach you how to take steps to improve your circumstances and provide positive alternatives for learned helplessness behaviors. People who get counseling eventually learn that you have the ability to choose your circumstances and manage your life. If you’re ready to find more positive ways to cope — reach out to a licensed therapy expert at ReGain today.


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