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Origin of ‘Learned Helplessness’


During the 1960s and 1970s, Seligman and his colleagues coined the term ‘Learned Helplessness’(disrupted responding), after observing that animals (such as dogs) that were administered electrical shocks constantly for a period of time while being harnessed and were not allowed to escape eventually gave up trying to be free. In other words, they learned to be helpless, because they did not have the ability to end the shocks (trauma), no matter what they did. They became despondent and passive and were unmotivated to perform tasks and took longer than usual to learn the tasks. However, animals that were able to escape the shocks (by jumping across a barrier) experienced no adverse effects.{{more}}

Learned Helplessness in Humans

After further studies Seligman and his colleagues suggested that human beings may be similar to animals with regard to disrupted responding, in that, when exposed to an extended period of trauma (emotionally damaging or painful situations) from which they found no relief, individuals eventually learned to be helpless; that is, they gave up on finding a way out of their situation and resigned themselves to the condition of turmoil. This resulted in a broken spirit, hopelessness and depression.

In more recent research in the 1990s, Peterson and his colleagues confirmed that when individuals are exposed to uncontrollable stress (or perceived stress) they learned that nothing they do will result in the outcome that they are looking for. As a result, they remain passive and do not respond, even if such responding would result in what they want – this is the essence of ‘Learned Helplessness’. They also found that in addition to severe stressors, other factors, such as genetic predisposition towards being helpless, as well as other environmental factors, may also result in learned helplessness and depression. Also, metabolic changes in the frontal areas of the brain play a role in depression.

A Vicious Cycle

Learned helplessness results in depression and depression in turn increases the feelings of helplessness. Depression refers to severe feelings of sadness for a least two weeks, in addition to other symptoms such as decrease or increase in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, weight gain or weight loss, feelings of despair, self-blame and degradation, irritability, restlessness, isolation, and hopelessness, to name a few.

Causes of Learned Helplessness

Today, millions of individuals have given up and have become emotionally disabled (unable to effectively recognize, interpret, control, and express fundamental emotions such as happiness) because of various life situations in which they have become trapped and from which they are unable to find release, such as broken marriages or other relationships, financial burden or other business arrangements, severe ongoing disputes and or legal entanglements, domestic violence or child abuse, being ostracized or excluded, feelings of loneliness, and lack of social support (just to name a few) and seemingly there is no way out.

Are you Learned Helpless?

Find out by taking this brief self-test by answering ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the following questions:

1. Have you been subjected to ongoing stress for more than one year?

2. Have you been powerless to change your stressful circumstances?

3. Do you feel like there is no way out of your situation?

4. Do you feel that there is nothing you could try that would change your present situation?

5. Have you given up trying to get out of your present condition?

6. Does the thought of your exerting effort to change things make you feel tired?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may be suffering from Learned Helplessness and you may also be depressed.

Getting out and Staying out of the Rut of Learned Helplessness

Dare to get moving: Start to exercise or do some kind of physical activities at least three times each week such as walking. This will help you to develop a stress resistant brain.

Dare to be positive: Maintain a positive heart and mind. Focus on the good things in your life. ‘Brainwash’ yourself with positive thinking; say it positive, even if you don’t believe it. Then say it positive until you do believe it.

Dare to try one more time: Do something to help yourself, although you think you will fail. Then dare to try one more time – you get the drift. Go ahead and do it and hope for the best, then hope for the best, then hope for the best…and so on.

Dare to believe that things will get better. It is often said that behind every cloud there is a silver lining. The truth is, behind every cloud is a dazzlingly bright sky; the dark cloud is temporary. Once the cloud has passed, your sunshine will appear. Wait out the cloud positively and actively – that is, do all you should do in order to succeed at your goal.

Dare to pray. Prayer moves mountains. It is as simple as, “Lord, please help me”.

Dare to eat and sleep right (three meals per day and eight hours each night respectively). A hungry, tired body creates a broken spirit.  

Confide in a friend or family member and get them to help you.

See a psychotherapist for counselling.

Need help with relationship and other problems? Ask DYNACII’s Life Coach, Dr Adams, a licensed clinical psychologist. Please note that all correspondence to the Life Coach is confidential and the cases presented are modified in order to maintain the anonymity of each writer. Dynamic Action Centre International Inc (DYNACII) is a non-governmental organization, committed to social and spiritual empowerment. For more information on DYNACII please visit: