Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Overcoming learned helplessness
I Can Do It!

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." Viktor E. Frankl

Learned helplessness is a behavior exhibited after enduring repeated negative stimuli of which you have no control. In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy, an individual's belief in their innate ability to achieve success. The person believes that they cannot control or change the undesirable situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available.

This post will explain the state of learned helplessness and suggest a way to overcome it.


Learned helplessness theory believes that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such a real or perceived absence of control over a situation's outcome. It is linked with PTSD, other health problems, and relationship issues.

Research has found that a human's reaction to feeling a lack of control differs both between individuals and between situations, i.e., learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation. Still, at other times it generalizes across conditions. An influential view is that such variations depend on an individual's attributional or explanatory style.

Explanatory style is a psychological quality that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Put simply, your attributional and explanatory style is how you define your circumstances to yourself. This also has a bearing on your propensity towards optimism or pessimism and, in turn, the following positive or negative mental states and outcomes.

Many researchers believe that attribution or explanatory styles play a role in determining how people are impacted by learned helplessness. This view suggests that an individual's characteristic style of explaining events helps decide whether they will develop or continue suffering from learned helplessness.

People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to see adverse events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly") and are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They experience stress, they often show disruption of emotions demonstrating passivity or aggressiveness, and they can also have difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy behavior patterns, causing them, for example, to neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment.

Some characteristics of learned helplessness include:

· low self-esteem

· poor motivation

· frustration

· low expectations

· passivity

· not asking for help

· underachieving

· procrastination

Learned helplessness is thought to contribute to feelings of anxiety and may influence the onset, severity, and persistence of conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

When you experience chronic anxiety, you may eventually give up on finding relief because your anxious feelings seem unavoidable and untreatable. Thus, people experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression may refuse medications or therapy that may help relieve their symptoms.

As people age learned helplessness could become something of a vicious cycle if left untreated. People fail to seek out options that may help, contributing to greater feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

How it is Developed

Often, learned helplessness begins in childhood. This learned helplessness can start very early in life. It is mostly unconscious. Children raised in institutionalized settings, for example, often exhibit symptoms of helplessness even during infancy.

When caregivers do not respond appropriately to a child's need for help or comfort, they repeatedly learn that they cannot change their situation. The state of learned helplessness then persists into adulthood.

Children with a history of prolonged abuse and neglect, for example, can develop learned helplessness and feelings of powerlessness.

By experiencing the "helpless" feelings, you become more likely to "learn" that you shouldn't try new things for fear of failure or rejection. With enough of these experiences, the adoption of these defeatist attitudes becomes highly problematic.

How to Overcome It

People with learned helplessness can overcome it. It is possible to conquer it with therapy and lifestyle changes. Because helplessness is a learned behavior, there are ways it can be unlearned.

It is entirely possible to reverse this way of thinking and behaving so that you can grow positively and be motivated to take risks and try new things.

The most common treatment is therapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people overcome these types of challenges by changing how they think and act.

CBT aims to help patients identify negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of learned helplessness and then replace those thoughts with more optimistic and rational thoughts. This process often involves carefully analyzing what you are thinking, actively challenging those ideas, and disputing negative thought patterns.

In therapy, people can:

· receive support and encouragement

· explore the origins of learned helplessness

· develop ways to decrease feelings of helplessness

· identify negative thoughts that contribute to learned helplessness

· identify behaviors that reinforce learned helplessness

· replace thoughts and actions with more positive and beneficial ones

· improve self-esteem

· work through challenging emotions

· address instances of abuse, neglect, and trauma

· set goals and tasks for themselves

If you feel that learned helplessness might negatively impact your life and health, consider talking to your doctor about steps you can take to address this problem.

Such treatment may allow you to replace feelings of learned helplessness with a sense of learned optimism instead. Unlearning this association and deconditioning the response does take practice, though.

You first need to identify your characteristic explanatory style. This refers to how you explain the events that happen in your life. The patterns of this are tightly linked to learned helplessness. It all comes down to the differences in optimism vs. pessimism.

Does learned helplessness impact your life?