Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual or animal develops a sense of resignation to their situation, even when they have the ability to take action to change it. This phenomenon was first identified by Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier in the 1960s through experiments on dogs. They found that when exposed to repeated shocks that they could not control, the animals refrained from taking action when they could prevent the shocks. In this article, we will explore the causes, signs, and symptoms, as well as the treatment options and strategies for preventing learned helplessness.

Causes of Learned Helplessness

There are a few common causes of learned helplessness, including chronic stress, negative reinforcement, and emotional trauma. Chronic stress can lead to learned helplessness by causing an individual to believe that circumstances are out of their control and that their efforts are futile. Negative reinforcement, such as punishment or criticism, can also lead to learned helplessness as the individual begins to believe that they are incapable of succeeding or making progress. Finally, emotional trauma, such as abuse or neglect, can lead to feelings of helplessness as the individual is exposed to uncontrollable and negative experiences.

Signs and Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

The signs and symptoms of learned helplessness include avoidance of decisions, a bad attitude, giving up quickly, an inability to tolerate frustration, a lack of effort, low motivation, passive behavior, poor self-esteem, procrastination, and refusing to try. Additionally, learned helplessness can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Effects on Mental and Physical Health

Learned helplessness can affect a person’s mental and physical health in a number of ways. It can cause feelings of depression, apathy, and powerlessness. This, in turn, can lead to a lack of motivation, low self-esteem, and a decrease in overall physical and mental health. Additionally, learned helplessness can lead to a person engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse or overeating, in order to cope with their negative emotions.

Treatment Options

Yes, learned helplessness can be treated. The most effective treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Both of these therapies focus on increasing the individual’s self-awareness and helping them to identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs. Additionally, they can help the individual to learn new coping strategies, such as problem-solving techniques, and to develop better communication skills. Other treatments, such as psychotherapy, exposure therapy, and mindfulness-based therapies, can also be helpful in treating learned helplessness. Also, medication can be used to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression associated with learned helplessness.

Try one of our exercises from the Collection of Mindfulness Exercises and Meditations for Reducing Stress and Increasing Self-Awareness

Strategies for Prevention

Strategies that can help prevent learned helplessness from developing include:

  • Encouraging children to take initiative and be independent
  • Teaching problem-solving skills
  • Modeling positive coping strategies
  • Building self-esteem
  • Developing effective communication skills
  • Encouraging children to ask for help when needed
  • Participating in activities that provide a sense of control
  • Providing positive reinforcements for effort, not just results
  • Teaching children to recognize and regulate their emotions

“Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.” – Christian D. Larson

In conclusion, learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental and physical health. It can be caused by chronic stress, negative reinforcement, and emotional trauma. However, with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and other treatment options, as well as preventative strategies, it is possible to overcome learned helplessness.

Take our Self-Assessment Tool for Evaluating an Individual’s Level of Learned Helplessness and find out more about you!


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One response to “Breaking the Cycle of Helplessness: Understanding and Overcoming Learned Helplessness”

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