What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen?

Amber Murphy

When a person is repeatedly facing stressful situations, they learn helplessness. They think that they won’t be able to control or change their present position, so they become complacent without feeling interested in available opportunities. In short, they lose motivation.

Because they feel like their experiences won’t change even though they tried making things work. In fact, according to a study, this state multiplies depression and stress. It has a connection with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What happens in learned helplessness?

Aside from feeling unmotivated, frustration and self-pity happen on learned helplessness too. Adults that suffered from the realities and cruelties of life experienced this feeling. However, younger people can learn this too, and it even originates in childhood.

When a child often cries, but no one goes to his side, this child will develop these feelings. Unfortunately, there is a high chance that they will carry this feeling until they become adults. These are some symptoms that a is developing learned helplessness:

Signs of Someone with Learned Helplessness

Hands clenched tightly

1. Frustration

Isn’t it frustrating to go in circles trying everything you can and find yourself again where you’ve started? This is even worse if your ending is worse than your starting point.

On the other hand, this could have been a realistic scenario in life if the one who suffers doesn’t have heavy luggage to carry. So one could move on and apply their learnings to future challenges. It will be a vital foundation of learned helplessness if this happens consecutively. When someone doesn’t know how to deal with frustration, it can also make learned helplessness worse.

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2. Giving up easily

Giving up would be the easiest solution when people are always frustrated, whether in school, in family, or in career. It takes much courage to fight. But it doesn’t take anything to give up.

However, people suffering from learned helplessness don’t know that the moment they give up, they become addicted to it. Giving up is like a drug that takes away courage and robs a bright future. Unfortunately, these people give up quickly because they don’t have any source of motivation. The people around them probably don’t give any attention to them. They don’t have any source of will other than themselves, who’ve been disappointing them too.

3. Lack of effort

How can they show excitement and excellence in what they do if nobody is helping them? A person that’s already used to the feeling that nobody cares won’t put in an effort or try their best because they’re already doubtful of the result.

4. Lacks motivation and tends to procrastinate

Someone suffering from this dilemma might lose their sense to continue doing what they usually do. For example, if they already have a job, they might procrastinate because of their frustration. If they have difficulty learning new things, they’ll choose to give up rather than persist and understand them. So it’s a cycle without stopping unless the person decides to break it or learns how to find motivation.

5. Failure to ask for guidance

Whenever these people experience uneasiness, they may abandon looking for help because their sentiments appear inescapable and untreatable no matter how much they try.

Let’s use the example of a worker once again. If he’s new to the job, he might find it challenging to ask for assistance from others. And this is because he’s been neglected for a long time. He’s not only afraid, but in the back of his mind, he has an assumption of what will happen.

On the other hand, people encountering emotional issues, like discouragement, might reject treatment or advice that might help them overcome learned helplessness.

What’s an example of learned helplessness?

Woman sitting in frustration and anger

Apart from the mentioned examples, let me ask you to observe trapped mice.

If you cage a mouse, you will observe that the mice struggle. Then, he’ll roam the cage and sniff everywhere. Then, he’ll try to assess his situation. But as he wanders in circles, he will give up and stay in one corner. This is because he believes that he did everything he could.

And because the mice know that the result of discovering his escape will be unsuccessful, he won’t try anything at all. This is what happens to humans too.

What’s the theory behind Learned Helplessness?

Some researchers conducted studies on dogs to have a clear basis for this state and exposed the dogs to electric shock. The first variable of their experiment involves dogs which can control the shocks. The results state that these dogs developed depression and anxiety.

The second variable used dogs that could control electric shocks. They were provided with a lever that, when pulled, the surprises would eventually stop. They didn’t stop their experiment here. Instead, they found out that the dogs in the first variable do not avoid shocks anymore. In short, they have already become helpless.

What’s more shocking is the findings of the researcher, Prof. Maier, when he conducted neuroscientific research. He claims the dogs don’t have learned helplessness. Instead, they’re unsuccessful in learning how to control. Sadly, this is how the view of learned helplessness would be in humans if not cured right away.

Why do people feel learned helplessness?

People learn this in two ways. The first would be going through a tough time and experiencing the symptoms stated. People in this situation are unable to resolve issues. This isn’t because they are incapable but because they’ve been so disappointed by their circumstances that they lose the will to fix problems.

At first, they panic because they want to get something done. But eventually, they leave the situation. So let’s take a smoker’s point of view. They can’t stop smoking because they’ve accepted that they won’t be able to quit. They might have tried quitting sometime in the past, but they fail to realize that vices are hard to let go of.

They’ve to learn and battle their urges every day. However, they fail because they failed in the past, and they’ve accepted history will repeat itself.

Take a look at someone who wants to lose weight. Losing weight means giving up their love for food which is hard, especially if they’re capable of buying delicious food. They procrastinate until they get fatter and fatter.

The other way some acquire learned helplessness would be getting the same trait from others. This case will only happen if the person is always with someone who has this problem.

Just imagine hearing the following words everyday:
“It won’t happen anyway, so why bother?”
“Just give up, life is short anyway”
“We can’t do those things, we lack the talent”

Now I know we are different when it comes to our beliefs, but some people can learn the problematic behavior of others, especially if they can relate. If two friends failed an examination, and the other one has learned helplessness in the long run, the other might have just developed learned helplessness. However, this wouldn’t be the case if it is the positive one who’ll be able to comfort and encourage his friend. This is where the importance of social and building relationships gets in.

How to overcome learned helplessness?

Man climbing and scaling a mountain

The aftereffects of learned helplessness can affect a person’s mental health negatively. As mentioned, how they handle their social life and relationships will be affected too.

It can be a medium that would cause severe depression and unworthiness. For example, if a person has a pessimistic view of life, he would be a candidate for learned helplessness. This could only be changed by changing lifestyle and some other treatment. If you think you are suffering from this issue, consider finding a doctor or mental health professional who can help you change your perspective and feelings.

Cognitive behavioral treatment or CBT helps people improve their mental and emotional health by changing how they feel and think. Undergoing this therapy would have the opportunity to receive encouragement and analyze where part of their lives the learned helplessness took roots.

They would also develop and teach ways to lessen their feeling of helplessness. And in doing this, they would be able to determine their negative thoughts and behaviors and replace them with positive ones.

Developing such behavior can address trauma and help them set new goals for themselves. Perhaps, they had the time to be helpless because they won’t do anything new but just self-pity all day.

If you are also this person, try to move and participate in active outdoor events to clear your mind. For example, some studies state that exercising prevents learned helplessness in animals.

Although there is still no research proving this to be effective on humans, being physically active prevents stress and calms the mind. Furthermore, it would help if you also paired it with a proper diet and practiced a newfound hobby so that you would be more preoccupied with useful things than wasting by feeling helpless. Then, with time and consistent behavioral checks, you would wake up motivated and full of energy to try again.

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