What is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen?
Living in a digital era has never been as difficult as it is now. We are taking in a variety of information on daily basis.
Whether it is pieces of information related to your job or personal interests, your brain keeps soaking these and storing them somewhere in its special “drawers”.
As the pieces of information keep piling up, our brain sometimes simply refuses to store information further and we cannot remember what the last article we read on the internet was.
In a similar fashion, our mind can sometimes come into such a state where it just gives up on everything.
Besides living in a digital era, human civilization as we know it today is a very complex structure.
Every day we are witnessing such instances where an individual has become deeply dependent on someone or something else.
It seems as though this someone or something is governing our mere existence and no matter what we do this external factor is going to prevail.
The above is a rather dangerous situation because it annihilates the primary postulate of being a human.
And that is the free will. In this case, we are talking about the free will to do with or without someone or something and to take matters into our own hands.
Once we unconsciously decide that an external factor, whether human or not, has full control over the events affecting or life this means that we have surrendered.
We stopped fighting and we are letting the “higher power” decide the outcome of our life.
When we combine all of the above, i.e. the general tiredness of mind and too many external factors affecting our life whether we like it or not, we are more or less approaching the point of breaking.
This point is manifested differently from an individual to an individual. Some get openly aggressive, some shut off the outside world completely.
Besides these, there are also those who have given up on everyone and everything and who have learned to simply do nothing.
Those are the ones who realize things are out of their control, there is nothing you can do to change the course of things already put in motion, and you can just sit peacefully and wait for the final outcome. Whichever the outcome may be.
Such state of mind where you are resigned, where you have come to terms with the uncertain result that you cannot (i.e. will not) change is a special psychological phenomenon which has been a topic of relevance over the past few decades.
To put it simply, psychologists call this phenomenon learned helplessness and it has been even more so relevant nowadays.
Throughout this article, we will try to break the learned helplessness term into its basic points by showing some examples and giving pieces of advice on how to struggle against it.
Before we do that, let us start from the very beginning. That is, let us first define what learned helplessness is.
DEFINITION – WHAT IS LEARNED HELPLESSNESS?
The concept of learned helplessness is a more or less widely understood concept even outside of psychology.
Still, it is the basis of many current theories and ideas in the field.
It is also the basis for several foundational concepts in positive psychology.
If we want to begin to understand the meaning and effect of learned helplessness, we need to rely on some actual experiments performed on animals.
We all remember a story from our high school psychology textbooks which involves experiments conducted on three groups of dogs.
More or less the story goes like this. During the 1960s, an American psychologist Martin Seligman was deeply interested in studying depression and its causes.
He conducted various experiments and one of the earliest involved studying the behaviour of dogs when exposed to unpleasant stimuli.
As a matter of fact, the three groups of dogs were exposed to different conditions. It is noteworthy that all three groups were harnessed.
However, dogs in Group 1 were merely kept harnessed for a certain period of time and then released. On the other hand, a dog from Groups 2 was paired with a dog in Group 3 by yoke system.
After pairing, dogs from Groups 2 and 3 were given electric shocks of the same intensity and duration.
The only difference was that dogs belonging to Group 2 were given the possibility to make the shocks stop by pushing a special lever. The paired dog from Group 3 did not have this option.
In a situation like this, the dog from Group 3 starts perceiving these shocks as something over which he has no control.
No matter how hard it pushed the lever the shocks would not stop.
Having no control over it, it seemed to them that it was the dog from Group 2 that was making it stop.
Thus, for them, the situation became something they could not escape from.
As opposed to the first part of the experiment, in the second part, dogs belonging to Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3 were placed together in a special box comprised of two compartments.
In one of these compartments, dogs were again shocked. However, they could escape the shocks jumping over a low partition wall.
Quite naturally, the dogs from Groups 1 and 2 were anxious to find a way out, which they did eventually. On the other hand, the majority of dogs from group 3 just lay passively, doing nothing.
Obviously, dogs belonging to Groups 3 had learned that regardless of what we do, regardless of the effort we make, the change will not come. There will be no improvement in the situation.
Having taken into consideration this early experiment, we can move on to define learned helplessness as follows.
Learned helplessness is a state of mind during which an organism is forced to bear aversive stimuli or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, and where it (the organism) becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.
Now that we have defined the term, let us direct our attention to what it is that causes for an individual to be consumed by learned helplessness.
REASONS & EXAMPLES, OR MANIFESTATIONS
Such experiments as described in the previous chapter were (luckily!) never conducted on humans.
However, we did not need artificial actuators of such feelings.
Everyday lives we lead played a major role in creating a feeling of helplessness in human beings.
Let us take a look into the following instances.
- Imagine a child being raised by (an) abusive parent(s). In that case, violence is the only path they know. Maybe at a certain point, the child will try to escape, to find a way out. The parents will always find a way to stop the child from doing that. Most likely, the child will try to escape many other times as well but the parents will always bring them back.
- Imagine a seemingly perfect couple on the outside. He cracks a stupid joke, she laughs as if forced to. Such a woman is most likely a woman experiencing domestic violence. She has tried to leave him countless times. He always makes sure that she stays for some more.
- Imagine being a war prisoner. You fight the oppressor, but there is no escape. You did try once or twice, maybe even more than that. But you are still held hostage.
- Imagine being born into a family of lower social status with low income. Imagine members of this family looking for jobs and either finding no jobs of finding only the low paid ones.
- Imagine studying hard yet again for an exam you were not able to pass for years. And, when you finally show up, you fail. All over again.
- Imagine working hard all day and making tangible results at your job. But the well-deserved raise does not happen or somebody else takes the credit.
- Imagine trying to quit smoking for years. But, you simply can’t. Similarly, imagine reorganizing your entire diet and doing exercise almost religiously. And the few extra pounds are still here.
- Imagine being a child in its formative years, seeking guidance from an adult in any possible way. And the necessary advice never comes.
- Imagine being an alcohol or drug addict. You attend the AA meetings, you talk to your sponsors, or you check into rehab (in both cases), but you sometimes keep using after a while due to either unfavourable set of external circumstances or insufficient character.
- Imagine waking up and finding a new wrinkle under your eyes or a grey hair morning after morning. You use anti-age creams on a regular basis, you dye your hair every month, but it does not help.
What is common to all of these examples above?
They all show a situation where an individual is exposed to severe situations, some more so than the others.
What is also common is that the final outcome is such that the people affected by it feel helpless with no way out.
Here we see the exposure to stress triggers which persist over such a period time which is just enough to convince you how helpless little creature you are.
And the real problem arises when you actually start believing so.
– Well, I did try to run away, but he always finds me!
– So what? I did study hard again, but I keep failing this exam.
– I asked my mum to help me out with this, but she wouldn’t. There is nothing I can do about it.
The above are just examples of the final resignation of an individual.
This is now the full acceptance of the (only) seeming fact how there is nothing you can do to pull yourself out of such a dark place.
Once an individual has thoroughly learned to feel helpless, their general behaviour and life attitudes change completely.
Some of the typical behaviours displayed in the learned helplessness state of mind are as follows:
- low or none self-esteem;
- low motivation, focus and interest in anything;
- declining expectations of success;
- displaying no persistence;
- avoid asking for help;
- ascribing success to factors beyond one’s control (e.g. luck).
If you have had any doubts concerning this topic so far, unfortunately, we have only proved how serious it is and what its manifestations are.
As shown previously, learned helplessness is a highly dangerous state of mind.
We know that our brain needs to be relieved of stress on a regular basis and we might often need some help with managing it.
Sadly, when a stressful situation, which is seemingly impossible to be controlled, perseveres over an extended period of time our brain will simply grow tired.
And it is only then that we are facing the most dangerous complications of learned helplessness.
Some say that depression is the top disease of the 21st century. To our great disappointment, they are not so wrong. And you may wonder what learned helplessness has to do with this.
As a matter of fact, learned helplessness has crucial implications for depression.
Namely, learned helplessness posits that when an individual believes that highly desired outcomes improbable and the highly aversive ones probable, and they have no impact on the outcome in neither of the cases, the final result will be depression and all that is going with it.
Another consequence of learned helplessness can be a complete emotional burnout.
In this case, the individual is completely exhausted emotionally so it stops any further activities for alleviating the situation in which they found themselves.
In addition to depression, learned helplessness can make an impact on various other negative emotions such as anxiety, phobias, general loneliness and shyness.
Some of these, especially anxiety, can be hard to notice as such, and we might often take it for granted or as just having a bad day.
But there are some serious signs that your life has been claimed by it.
Moreover, in the aforementioned example of children and women victims of domestic violence and war prisoners, for example, learned helplessness can negatively affect and even increase the risk of PTSD.
Another instance where learned helplessness aggravates our mental, and by extension general physical health is with the elderly people.
As we grow older we are slowly coming to terms with the finality of our lives.
However, when it happens that an elderly person loses someone close (e.g. a spouse) they may give up under the impression of how that is the end.
This is even more dangerous since in that case the person stops taking care of themselves; they refuse to take the prescribed medicines, etc. just because they feel helpless against the face of death.
As we have shown, learned helplessness can have serious implications on our mental and physical health.
If an individual decides to ignore the first symptoms, the later complications might be quite difficult to deal with.
HOW TO AVOID AND TREAT IT, OR PRESERVATION OF SELF
We have established that learned helplessness is a serious mental condition which needs to be tended properly, as soon as you feel the first symptoms it is time for you to do something about it.
In the early stages, there are still things you can do to make yourself feel better and change the course of events.
Before we go further, it is interesting to address the issue of what type of people is generally affected by learned helplessness.
As it goes with other negative emotions, learned helplessness most often strikes those who give up easily and are quick to quit struggling.
Obviously, people who are oriented towards general negativity and pessimism are the ones most affected by negative helplessness.
So, once you start feeling down and that things are slipping out of your hands, do not shut down. Don’t waste time thinking about things you could have or should have changed.
Do not think about the things to come and whether they will be to your liking or not, and whether you will (not) be able to change them.
When something happens, do not look for culprits. It’s not a higher power and it’s not you either.
Just say, who knows what good will come out of this one day. And move on.
Easier said than done, we know!
So, if this is not helping, call that one friend who can always pull you out of your darkness either by cracking jokes or bringing food.
On the other hand, if you do not feel like socializing, and you would like to avoid human contact, here’s an idea for you. Sweatshirt, trainers, earphones, outside.
Walking is a confirmed method of reducing stress and anxiety. It is also good for your general physical health. Spending time in nature also benefits your mental and spiritual health.
Naturally, when you combine these two, you will get that well-deserved peace of mind. Additionally, with your earphones on, the music you listen might also have a beneficial effect.
We will not go into details whether you should listen to classic rock or pop music. You know what you like and what relaxes you most.
So whether it is Walking on Sunshine or Here Comes the Rain Again, volume up, brain activity down.
Besides this, you can also rearrange your life just a little bit. Change your diet. Start exercising. Just be careful not to set any unrealistic goals. Know that this is only for distraction.
The previous ideas might help out if you are in the early stages of learned helplessness. This was more an idea of how to prevent it than how to treat it.
If the situation is more complicated than just described, then the best solution is to check yourself into therapy.
The psychotherapists dealing with you will know just the right methods and steps for you to go through in order to dispense with the feeling of helplessness you learned along the way.
Some of the methods and steps you might need to perform are as follows:
- receive encouragement and support from professionals or people with similar experience;
- explore the origins of learned helplessness you are feeling;
- develop ways to decrease the existing feelings of helplessness;
- identify negative thoughts that contribute to learned helplessness and behaviours that reinforce learned helplessness and replace them with more positive and beneficial ones;
- improve self-esteem;
- work through challenging emotions;
- face with potential instances of trauma, neglect, and abuse;
- set easily accomplished goals and tasks so as to break the negative cycle.
Additional method introduced by Seligman himself is Learned Optimism Model.
The idea behind is something similar to the way we learn helplessness.
This virtually means that we need to will our brain into positive thinking.
Although it is not as simple and easy as learning to feel helpless, the method proved to be functional.
Although this chapter showed that feeling helpless is not the end of the world, still heed the following advice.
Stay positive no matter what.
Negative thoughts and feelings cause serious problems and significantly impair both our mental and physical condition.
Do not brood over things, change what you can and always try again when you do not succeed from the first attempt.
Even if you keep failing, remember what we said a few paragraphs earlier – Who knows what good it may bring in the long run!
We live in a society where either this or that is expected from us.
We keep meeting expectations as much as we can, but at a certain, point it seems how we no longer have control over our lives let alone the preparation of a yearly report.
As the stress keeps piling up, so do the everyday tasks and day after day it seems they are getting harder to accomplish. Sometimes we try and fail, and try and fail again.
We change the approach, maybe we even let some time pass. But still, no positive outcome.
It is as if you are carrying some heavy burden and there is no lifting it. You need some kind of help, some deliverance, but the universe is simply against you.
You are all alone and helpless.
When this situation persists for a longer period of time you just decide that it’s not worth it, and you feel completely defeated by the world.
This feeling is known as learned helplessness.
As we have seen throughout the article, this psychological phenomenon can have a serious impact on our mental and physical health, leading to depression, anxiety, enhancing phobias, etc.
The point of this was not to discourage you or tell you to give up.
This is a transient situation which requires some effort but the outcome is completely worth it.
You get out on the other side feeling no burden on your shoulders and there are no real or imaginary failures lurking around the corner.
Whenever you are feeling helpless – always look the other way.
This is where the optimistic part of you will be waiting to tell you that everything is going to be just fine!
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