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What Is Learned Helplessness and How Can You Unlearn It?

What Is Learned Helplessness and How Can You Unlearn It?

Updated on May 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Learned Helplessness - Meaning, Signs, Examples, Theory & More

Key Takeaways

  • The term learned helplessness was an accidental discovery made by Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Steven. F. Maier in 1967.
  • Learned helplessness occurs when a person believes that they cannot overcome challenges even if given an opportunity to do so.
  • It usually occurs after repeated exposure to mental trauma, abuse, and psychological maltreatment.
  • A sense of powerlessness and incapability doesn’t allow the person to try and change the situation.
  • Learned helplessness leads to suffering in silence. It leaves wounds and cuts beyond recovery.
  • Overcoming learned helplessness is possible with the use of cognitive behavior therapy and learned optimism.

We often face stressful situations in our daily lives. Many times we think that there is no escape from this difficulty. So, we even stop trying to escape. This is nothing but learned helplessness.

It is a maladaptive behavior pattern that is marked by passivity, powerlessness, and a negative attitude towards life. 

The person makes no effort to overcome challenges or try again and again because they have already developed a wrong notion that they would fail. 

Thus, they do not want to try at all, rather suffer in silence and solitude.

The concept refers to the idea that when you start to believe that you cannot overcome struggles and hurdles in life, you accept the situation and the failures associated with it. 

As if you have no control over what is happening. You’ll stop further trying and will be mentally conditioned to be in a state of pain and suffering.

It is called a learned behavior because it was not there when you were born. It came to you when you started believing that negative life experiences are overpowering and cannot be altered.

Stay here to learn more on this topic….

Learned Helplessness Infographics

Learned Helplessness - Meaning, Signs, Examples, Theory & More
Learned Helplessness – Meaning, Signs, Examples, Theory & More
Learned Helplessness - Meaning, Signs, Examples, Theory & More
Learned Helplessness – Meaning, Signs, Examples, Theory & More

What is learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a psychological state of passivity and powerlessness that comes from recurrent failures to overcome stressful situations. The person assumes that nothing more is possible and they stop trying to change or alter the situation, even if they get a chance to do so.

Learned helplessness behavior is a mental state in which an organism makes no attempt to escape from an unfavorable or difficult situation. 

It starts with feelings of powerlessness and the inability to change stressful circumstances in life.

The repeated failure to overcome the stress makes the person believe that nothing can be done to get out of the problem. 

They start feeling helpless, weak, passive, and feeble. Thus, they prefer to keep quiet and accept the suffering as it is.

This happens because the organism or the person had already been facing that situation for a long time. So they have learned to accept that situation as a part of their plight.

The concept of learned helplessness is strongly applicable to many human behaviors. Although one should remember that the concept was originally developed in the light of animal behaviors. 

The person who experiences learned helplessness develops pessimism. They feel that nothing can be done now. Let me now explain learned helplessness in simpler terms. 

Suppose a person faces negative situations or negative events in his daily life. He/she gradually realizes that they cannot do anything to modify or improve their situation.

As a result, the person becomes demotivated. After a certain period of time, suppose the person gets an opportunity to improve his situation or escape from it. 

But, by this time, he has learned to believe that his situation can never improve. Thus, he does not take any action to come out of the difficult situation. The person is said to exhibit helpless behavior.

In this article, we will mainly discuss the theory of learned helplessness and also focus on how to overcome it in real life.

The psychology behind learned helplessness 

Everyone has a different way to deal with adversities in their life. Some people display resilience to stressful situations, others don’t.  

For all those who feel powerless, a hopeless feeling operates deep within. It becomes more challenging when no more trial and effort is done to control the situation and regain lost power.

As a result, when a person feels that they cannot control a difficult situation, they exhibit certain signs and symptoms. 

Prof. Seligman found that when experiencing learned helplessness, the person exhibits certain key behavioral patterns –

  • They feel the situation is overpowering them
  • Passivity sets in
  • No initiative is taken when the person suffers repeated failures
  • They feel the situation is completely out of hand
  • All future efforts are stopped to escape and overcome the aversive stimuli
  • Feelings of lack of motivation sets in
  • The expectation of success reduces after recurrent failures
  • The person feels helpless and makes no further attempts to escape or avoid the aversive situation

The 10 notable signs and symptoms of learned helplessness

The most common signs which are seen in this case are passivity, interjected hostility, loss of appetite or decrease in body weight, and deficits in social activities and skills. 

Apart from these signs, there are some other symptoms of learned helplessness. We will now talk about these symptoms briefly.

1. Low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness

People with learned helplessness are often doubtful about themselves. They are critical about everything they do and often feel useless.

They feel insignificant and believe that they do not have anything valuable to offer to this world.

2. Passivity

Individuals with learned helplessness often tend to have a passive outlook towards everything. They are inclined to accept what happens in their lives. 

They strongly believe that their surrounding situation controls them, and they cannot control the situation. This results in feelings of helplessness in the individual.

3. Frustration 

People having learned helplessness generally have heightened feelings of frustration. They have low frustration tolerance. 

This creates additional problems when these people are working with others in a group. When the slightest thing goes wrong, these people tend to get irked or irritated quickly.

4. Lack of effort

Another symptom of learned helplessness can be a lack of effort by an individual. The person keeps all his tasks to do later as he feels they are difficult. 

He also does not feel confident enough to do or make important decisions while facing a stressful event.

5. Giving up

Individuals in this case have a tendency to give up easily. 

When they experience even a small problem in the task that they are doing, they tend to think that the task has become impossible. So they stop trying and give up completely.

6. Loss of self-confidence

When you fail in your endeavors repeatedly, you may think that you’re a failure. This feeling of worthlessness is so strong that it breaks your self-confidence. 

You feel that you do not have any more power to overcome the aversive situation. It’s all done and dusted. Thus, you give up and lose hope forever. 

Low levels of self-confidence bring doubt and pessimism. You will tend to second guess your abilities to overcome the struggles and a time will come when you’ll lose all hope of trying and succeeding.

The stressful situation and aversive stimuli related to it will overpower you. You’ll feel helpless and doomed with no hope of challenging the situation further.

7. Low motivation

People who experience learned helplessness feel less motivated to try again because they have already assumed that no matter what they do, they can never succeed. 

Feelings of failure have overpowered their feeble mindset. They have lost all hope to win over the situation. Thus, they show no motivation to try further

8. Seeking help from others become inconsistent

Learned helplessness can stop you from seeking help from others. When you have accepted your plight as real and unchangeable, you’ll make no effort to change it. 

The false perception that no one can help them stops them from seeking assistance from others. The individual shows a passive response and allows the harm to happen without doing anything about it. 

9. Feelings of being stuck and confined

When you are in a stressful state, it means you’re trapped and confined in suffering.

In learned helplessness, the organism feels stuck because the repeated failures have made them stay in the agonizing state forever. 

They know that they will have to do something to come out of the situation but are unable to help themselves. 

Pessimism and negativism have made them fearful to try again. Thus, they have accepted their situation as it is. When given a chance to escape, they still remained in the same state of turmoil.

10. Sad mood and apathy

Learned helplessness leads to feelings of depression and hopelessness. Loss of interest to escape the situation and loss of interest to change the situation is seen.

The person remains in a state of unhappiness and indifference.

Learned helplessness examples

Psychologists first observed learned helplessness behaviors in animals in the second half of the 20th century. However, the concept can be applied to humans as well. 

It is important to note that learned helplessness in humans is a more complex process than that in animals. 

It also depends on a number of external as well as internal factors. However, we can still say that the process of learned helplessness in humans is similar to that in animals. 

In this section, we will take a look at some examples of learned helplessness. 

Example 1

The earliest instance of learned helplessness can be traced back to a long time ago in human history. There is an age-old strategy in a war or battle to kill the leader of the enemy. 

This is nothing but the principle of learned helplessness.

When the enemy troops see that their leader has died, they tend to get overwhelmed. They thus think that they cannot win the battle, and they surrender.

Now let us come to the modern era. Learned helplessness in humans has its roots at a very early age.

For example, if a child uses ineffective study techniques and consistently gets poor marks, he would stop trying to improve his grades. He will learn to accept his low scores. 

We will discuss in detail learned helplessness in children later. 

Learned helplessness can manifest itself in adults as well. 

Example 2

Suppose a smoker wants to quit smoking. He tries to do it on his own but fails to quit. So he develops a belief that he cannot quit. 

In this case, the person develops learned helplessness. Later on, when the same person visits a rehabilitation center to unlearn smoking by seeking professional help, he might not be able to quit smoking. 

This is because his previous experience has convinced him that he can never quit.

Example 3

Another example we can think of here is the victims who suffer domestic abuse. The victims stay in abusive relationships for a longer time.

Initially, they may try out various ways to overcome the abuse but when all attempts lead to failure, they eventually give up. This is especially true in the case of women. 

As the person keeps facing domestic violence for a long time, she tends to believe that she can never escape that situation.

The woman thus accepts her fate. So, even if help and support become available later, she still makes no attempts to escape from the relationship.

Example 4  

In animals, learned helplessness can explain why animals raised in captivity fail to survive if they are released into the wild.

Perhaps the best example of this can be Keiko the killer whale, star of the movie Free Willy (1993). Keiko was captured as a 2-year-old baby and raised in human captivity.

Following several petitions and movements by animal lovers who were concerned for his welfare, Keiko was released to the wild. However, he failed to be accepted by any wild killer whale pods.

Keiko later willingly returned to the contact of humans and died of pneumonia at 27 years of age.

Scientists concluded that Keiko had become dependent on humans. Since he had been given food every day by his caregivers, he had forgotten to hunt on his own. 

This can be related to the principle of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness theory (Seligman’s theory of depression)

The learned helplessness theory was put forward by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967.

They conducted several experiments in the late 1960s and early 1970s which are considered as the groundwork of this theory. 

Initially, Seligman and Maier conducted their experiments on dogs. They were interested to see how dogs responded to electrical shock.

the researchers exposed some dogs to electrical shock which the dogs could not control.

They later observed that even when these dogs were provided with a lever-pressing mechanism to stop the shocks, they did not do so.

From this, they concluded that some phenomenon was occurring which made the dogs passive. To gain further evidence, they decided to conduct another experiment.

They now took many dogs which included the dogs exposed to shock in the previous experiment, as well as other dogs. 

The researchers then put the dogs in a box that had two chambers and was divided by a low barrier. 

Among these two chambers, one had an electrified floor and the other had a normal floor. All the dogs were placed on the side of the electrified floor. They were given uncontrollable electric shocks. 

After that, the researchers noticed an unusual thing. Some dogs did not put any effort to jump over the low barrier to the other side of the chamber. 

Incidentally, these dogs were the same ones that had been electrocuted in the previous experiment.

These dogs exhibited signs of passivity and acted in a helpless manner. They also started showing signs of anxiety and depression.

Later, in follow-up research, it was noticed that the dogs did not initiate any response to avoiding the shock. Rather, they were experiencing learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness experiments (Further research to prove the theory of learned helplessness)

To get a detailed idea, Seligman and his colleagues conducted another study. This time, they gathered other dogs who previously did not take part in the study and divided them into three groups.

  1. The first group consisted of dogs that were tied into a harness for a period of time and were not given any electric shock. 
  2. The second group of dogs were tied to the same harness but were subjected to electrical shocks. They were also given a choice to avoid the shock by pressing a panel with their noses. 
  3. The third group of dogs was subjected to similar experimental conditions as the second group. The only difference was that they were not given any choice to avoid the shocks.

After the three groups had gone through this first experimental manipulation, they were all placed in the box with two chambers. 

The experimenters noticed that the first and the second group of dogs could easily figure out the way to avoid the shocks by jumping over the low barrier to the other side. 

But the third group did not make any move or put any effort to avoid the shocks. 

Seligman and Maier now moved on to repeat analogous experiments on rats. The rats were divided into three groups just like the dogs. 

The experimenters then gave similar treatments to the three groups.

The group of rats who were given controllable shocks could avoid them by pressing a lever. The other group of rats which was given uncontrollable shocks could press the lever but still received shocks.

Results of the experiments

The findings of these experiments yielded the same results. 

The group of rats who were subjected to controllable shocks could easily escape from the situation. On the contrary, the group which received uncontrollable shocks did not make any attempt to escape the situation.

Similar results helped in validating the studies on learned helplessness.

On the basis of the experimental findings, Martin Seligman and Steven tried to explain the effects of learned helplessness by developing a hypothesis.

The hypothesis states that when animals or humans find that they do not have any control over negative events in life, they feel that they are helpless.

This makes them feel unmotivated to respond in positive ways in future situations. Prof. Martin Seligman and Steven Maier published several of their research works.

The most important of these was called “Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control”. The paper was published by Oxford University Press in 1993.

This book highlights the theory, practical applications, and future implications of learned helplessness.

According to Martin Seligman people who suffer from depression have learned to perceive the stressful situation as more powerful than their ability to combat it.

He proposed that depressive patients do not try to escape from past hurts and relive moments of suffering. They think it’s futile to try to escape from negative situations.

Their failed attempts to move out of the situation make them realize that any further future attempts will make no difference. 

Thus, they become passive and will tolerate the aversive stimuli for a longer time, even when escape is possible. 

Hence, Seligman proposed that learned helplessness may lead to the development of depression in humans.

Further research

Later, the research on learned helplessness demonstrated that animals or humans with learned helplessness showed some symptoms of depression as well. 

These symptoms were lower levels of aggression, loss of appetite and low weight, and changes in monoamine neurotransmitter levels.

American psychologist Lyn Yvonne Abramson and her colleagues reformulated this learned helplessness theory in 1978.

According to them, the development of depression depends on the kind of attributions people make of a negative situation. 

Although there is no strong evidence, scientists assume that this process is different from that in animals. Investigators suggested that the attributions depend on three explanatory styles: 

Internal or external 

It speaks about an attribution where the person has to judge whether they have any control over the situation they are in. 

If the person realizes that there is no control, they tend to become helpless and feel like a failure. 

Slowly the motivation to try again weakens and they’ll stop it completely. Thus, becoming a victim of learned helplessness.

Stable or unstable

In this explanatory style, the person thinks whether the repeated negative events or aversive stimuli will remain the same or is more likely to change in the future. 

If the repeated exposure to negative experiences is the same, a time will come when the individual stops trying and suffers from learned helplessness.

Global or specific

This refers to a person’s tendency to generalize the event to other external factors. They feel that they are already in a helpless state where nothing can be done to control the situation.

The researchers said that a negative event is associated with a pessimistic explanatory style. 

This means that previous experiences which are internal, stable, and global are more likely to lead to depressive thoughts than external, unstable, and specific experiences.

Let us look at an example. Suppose in an abusive relationship, the male speaks rudely with the female.

If the girl thinks that this behavior by her partner is because she is unattractive, this would be more detrimental to her mental health. 

On the other hand, if she thinks that her partner is behaving rudely because he has had a bad day, she would not be as upset as she already is.

Learned helplessness in children

In most cases, learned helplessness starts from early childhood. It can originate due to a lack of concern or emotional attachment manifested by caregivers. 

The child usually perceives the caregiver to be unreliable or unresponsive in this case.

Children who are raised in orphanages can develop learned helplessness. They often show the previously mentioned symptoms of learned helplessness under stressful circumstances.

The unresponsive caregivers often fail to cater to the needs of the child. This leads to a formation of a belief in the child that he or she will not receive any kind of help in times of need. 

Repetition of this behavior by the caregiver makes the belief stronger in the child, thus leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. 

The child starts believing that he can do nothing to change this situation. This paves the pathway of the development of learned helplessness in adulthood.

Learned helplessness can also develop in children who are raised in environments of abuse and neglect.

Some cases involving over-parenting can also result in the development of learned helplessness. Caregivers who exhibit an over-controlling attitude towards their children increase the child’s dependency on them. 

As a result, the child feels that they will never be able to function without any help from the caregivers.

As a consequence, the child never learns to solve his own problems in life. He is never able to figure out how to react in times of stress without any help. This also hampers in building resilience in the child. 

For example, suppose a parent asks their child to clean his room. If the child does not do it properly, he sees that his mother or father completes the task. 

This has a negative impact on the child. This is known as adult dependence learning.

A repetition of this incident leads the child to believe that whenever he cannot do a task, there will be someone else to complete it. Thus this leads to the development of learned helplessness. 

Learned helplessness can also lead to the development of childhood depression as well as anxiety. 

For example, similar to adults, when a child feels that they cannot control any difficult situation in their life, they start believing that future events will also be uncontrollable. 

As already mentioned in the example section, the concept of learned helplessness can also be seen in academic performance or educational settings. 

Children with learned helplessness feel that they will never be able to perform better academically once they get consistent poor grades in exams. As a result, they lose the motivation to improve.

Signs of learned helplessness in children

If one notices carefully, a child with learned helplessness can be easily identified. The symptoms are usually the same as seen in cases of adults. They include 

  • low motivation
  • passivity
  • procrastination 
  • frustration 
  • low effort
  • sad mood
  • an attitude of giving up easily
  • lack of problem-solving ability
  • feelings of inadequacy
  • poor self-esteem
  • negative self-image

Learned helplessness and other mental health problems

Learned helplessness is not a diagnosable mental health condition. But it can lead to several other psychiatric illnesses if it remains unchecked for a long time. 

Sometimes learned helplessness is a distorted thought pattern that is based on limiting beliefs and overpowering emotions.

It’s a problematic perceptual and thought pattern that leads to severe forms of maladaptive behavior.

Learned helplessness can cause potential problems as we see in:

Learned helplessness and relationships

Leaving an abusive relationship is harder than one can imagine. Learned helplessness in relationships is manifested in different ways. The victim feels helpless but still doesn’t leave the abuser. Why? Because they have accepted the aversive stimuli as more powerful that cannot be controlled. So, they accepted it as real and unchangeable.

From some of the examples of learned helplessness, we have noticed that learned helplessness happens in abusive relationships and incidents of domestic violence.

Research studies have found that victims choose to live with someone who is constantly abusing and harming them. 

As the abusers are in full control of the situation, the victim loses all interest to alter the situation. They feel helpless and trapped yet do nothing to escape the abusive relationship.

This happens because the previous experiences of repeated failures to escape have led to a negative mindset.

The victim has developed a false belief that they cannot control the situation and thus gives up. There is no motivation and effort to try again even if given an opportunity to do so. 

Here, the victim is conditioned to believe that they are destined to experience the pain and suffering, thus making no effort to change the situation.

For them, any more effort is absolutely meaningless.

Impact or Effect of learned helplessness on mental health

The blind spots of learned helplessness are many. Some of the most probable ones are as follows:

  • Fear and anxiety
  • A state of burnout
  • Lack of motivation to try out new ways to unlearn the maladaptive behavior pattern
  • Unhappiness
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self-image
  • No emotional healing
  • Constant negative thoughts
  • Social avoidance
  • Phobias
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of self-belief
  • Less success and more failures stemming out of pessimism
  • Withholding negative emotions leading to depression
  • Developing a false notion that outcome is uncontrollable so there is no point in trying to alter the outcome
  • Chronic failure and unwillingness to act and respond in positive ways

Learned Helplessness treatment

As we have seen, learned helplessness is a behavior that an individual learns through one or more negative events in his life. So it logically follows that this behavior can be “unlearnt” as well. 

Overcoming learned helplessness can be achieved in either of three ways. 

1. Cognitive behavior therapy

Perhaps the most effective method of overcoming learned helplessness is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). 

This is a form of psychotherapy in which a patient and a clinical psychologist work together to identify distorted thoughts.

This can subsequently help the patient to challenge and overcome these thoughts and behaviors.

This is often linked with the ABC method for reframing negative experiences. The ABCDE method was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Albert Ellis. 

This involves a five-step process. Take some time to think about an adverse situation. Then go through the following steps.

  1. Adversity – In this step, describe the adverse situation.
  2. Belief – Note down your explanation of how the adverse situation occurred.
  3. Consequence – Illustrate your feelings and actions that resulted from the adverse situation.
  4. Disputation – Think about whether you can react differently if you faced the same situation again.
  5. Energization – Think whether the alternate reaction that you thought of in the previous step, would actually be helpful in the situation or not.

CBT benefits for the patient 

  • The person is given mental support and positive encouragement by the therapist.
  • They will help the patient identify the origin and triggers of learned helplessness.
  • Help them improve self-esteem.
  • Address negative emotions.
  • Work through abuse, trauma, and maltreatment.
  • Identify negative thoughts and feelings that lead to learned helplessness.
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
  • Learn good coping skills to overcome the aversive situation.

2. Practice learned optimism

According to some scientists, the best way to unlearn learned helplessness is by adopting a more optimistic outlook on life. 

This follows directly from the concept of learned optimism that was described by Martin Seligman. 

Take a look at three scenarios and reflect on how you should evaluate them. 

  • Suppose you say something wrong in an interview. Rather than thinking it was your fault, try to believe that the interviewer intimidated you. 
  • Suppose you have tried multiple times to get selected in the dance team of your school, but have been unsuccessful. Do not think that you will be unsuccessful even if you try again. Rather, keep trying till you get selected. 
  • Suppose you were not prepared for a test but still got good grades. Do not think that you got lucky this time. Rather think that you knew the concepts well, which is why you could answer the questions even after not studying. 

3. Build SMART goals 

The third method to overcome learned helplessness is to set goals for yourself through the SMART method. 

The SMART method entails that your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time friendly.

For example, rather than thinking “I want to be successful in life”, think about what exactly success means to you.

Focus on a particular job that you want to do (Specific), and a salary that you wish to earn (Measurable). 

Also, set a timeline to achieve these goals (Time). But at the same time, also be realistic (Achievable, Relevant) about what you want from life. 

These three methods can often be used in combination with each other to yield better results. 

Overall in this article, we have defined learned helplessness and provided a wide variety of examples. We have also provided some self-help tips which we hope will be useful.

Overcoming learned helplessness through self-help

So far from all the discussions done earlier, it is seen that all of us do not suffer or respond in similar ways in face of stress. 

A person who explains an event in pessimistic ways is more likely to become a victim of learned helplessness. 

A person can do certain things to overcome feelings of learned helplessness.

  • Practice positive cognitive framing. It blocks negative thinking.
  • Develop self-awareness to understand the limiting beliefs and negative thought patterns.
  • Stop self-sabotaging yourself by accepting your suffering.
  • Never give up and continue your efforts to escape the negative situation.
  • Journal the fleeting thoughts that make you feel worse.
  • Positive self-talk helps in overcoming learned helplessness. It improves motivation and you won’t stop trying.
  • Try to celebrate your small success stories. It improves intrinsic motivation to work harder and overcome helplessness.
  • Do a lot of self-care. Remember a healthy mind can stay in a healthy body.
  • Try to see sunshine and rainbows. Stay positive and practice learning optimism every day.
  • Seek help from well-wishers whenever needed.
  • Visit a therapist if you feel you cannot handle things on your own.

Learned helplessness book

If you wish to go through some good reads on learned helplessness, you may keep an eye on some of the best sellers on this topic. 

The video link shared below explains the concept of learned helplessness clearly. Do check out.

Summing Up from “ThePleasantMind”

To conclude, we can say that learned helplessness is an all-or-nothing feeling. It leads to a mindset where the person loses problem-solving ability. There is a tendency to look at the downsides only.

This type of thinking often tends to make one feel that efforts to improve the situation are meaningless because success can never happen. A spiral of pessimism does not allow the person to stay happy and feel positive.

But the good part is, learned helplessness can be overcome. There are ways to unlearn faulty thinking and maladaptive behavior patterns

The only requirement is to stay focused and develop a growth mindset that aversive situations can be controlled and altered with optimism and continuous trying.

Never give up until things turn out to be good for your mental wellbeing.

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