The 2 Types Of Learned Helplessness And How To Overcome Them

Learned helplessness

When horrible things happen, we want to think that we will do whatever it takes to make things better. According to research on what is known as learned helplessness, when we believe we have no control over what occurs, we tend to give up and accept our destiny.

What Is Learned Helplessness Behavior?

Based on American Psychological Association, learned helplessness occurs when a person is repeatedly exposed to uncontrollable, stressful events and fails to exercise control when it is accessible.

We have “learned” that we are powerless in that position and will no longer attempt to change it, even if the change is possible. When we have this experience and realize that we have no control over the circumstances around us, we lose motivation.

Even if an opportunity to change our circumstances arrives, we do not take advantage of it. Even if we can do something, we will most likely just accept the negative outcomes. Individuals who have experienced learned helplessness are often less able to make decisions.

Learned helplessness has also been linked to a variety of psychological disorders. Learned helplessness may aggravate major depressive disorder, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness.

Learned Helplessness Theory

Learned Helplessness Theory

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier created the concept of learned helplessness by accident. They first observed helpless behavior in dogs who had been classically trained to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone.

The dogs were then put in a shuttlebox with two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side of the floor but not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to classical conditioning did not try to escape, even though avoiding the shock was as simple as hopping over a little barrier.

The researchers then created another experiment to study this phenomenon.

  • In group one, the dogs were harnessed for a short time before being released.
  • In group two, the dogs wore the same harnesses but received electrical shocks that could be prevented by pushing a button on their noses.
  • In group three, the dogs got the same shocks as those in group two, but this group could not manage the shock. The shocks seemed to be fully random and beyond the dogs’ control in the third group.

After that, the dogs were put in a shuttlebox. The first and second sets of dogs rapidly discovered that jumping the barrier removed the shock. On the other hand, those in the third group made no attempt to get away with the shocks.

They had acquired a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would avoid or remove the shocks because of their prior experience. However, this does not always explain how learned helplessness is acquired since there might be variability in how different organisms develop it under different situations.

What Causes Learned Helplessness?

Experiences may increase a person’s risk of developing learned helplessness. It usually starts after experiencing repeated traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or domestic violence.

However, not everyone who experiences these situations develops learned helplessness. Explanatory styles also contribute to its growth. An explanatory style is how a person explains an event to themself.

People with a pessimistic explanatory style, which causes them to see negative events as unavoidable and the outcome of their flaws, are more prone to develop learned helplessness. People that have an optimistic explanatory style are less inclined to do so.

How To Overcome Learned Helplessness?

So, how can individuals overcome their taught helplessness? According to research, learned helplessness may be effectively reduced, especially if intervention happens early on. Long-term learned helplessness may also be reduced, though it may take more time.

Therapy may help to alleviate the signs of learned helplessness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a kind of psychotherapy that may help people overcome the thoughts and behaviors that lead to learned helplessness.

CBT aims to assist patients in recognizing negative patterns of thinking that lead to feelings of learned helplessness and then replacing these ideas with more hopeful and reasonable ones. This method often involves carefully studying our thoughts, aggressively questioning them, and disputing negative thought patterns.

According to one animal research, exercise may be beneficial in reducing signs of acquired helplessness. Having a growth mindset is also an important part of overcoming learned helplessness.

5 Symptoms Of Learned Helplessness

5 Symptoms Of Learned Helplessness

Dealing with adversity may be difficult, and not everyone feels on top of their game all of the time. That is rather typical. However, learned helplessness goes far deeper. Here are some signs that learned helplessness is taking control:

Low Self-esteem 

People who have acquired helplessness have low self-esteem and mistrust their capacity to do even the most basic tasks.


People suffering from learned helplessness have an extremely low irritation tolerance because they believe everything is beyond their control. They are quickly overwhelmed or upset when working on tasks or interacting with people.


“Bad things simply happen to me,” attitude saps any drive to attempt to improve things. People with this viewpoint make little effort to avoid hardship or increase their chances of success.

Lack Of Effort 

Lack Of Effort

Learned helplessness may lead to procrastination and avoidance of decisions. Some of us often do not attempt to accomplish projects or jobs because we believe that nothing — or nothing positive — will happen if we do.

Giving Up

Even when we begin working on anything, we abandon it immediately. Learned helplessness interferes with follow-through and may make even little roadblocks appear overwhelming.

Final Thoughts

Learned helplessness may have serious consequences for one’s mental health and well-being. People with learned helplessness are more likely to have depressive symptoms, higher stress levels, and less drive to care for their physical health.

If we think that learned helplessness is affecting our life and health, we should ask a doctor about the steps we may take to address this.

Further testing may result in an accurate diagnosis and therapy that can help us replace negative thinking patterns with more positive ones. This kind of therapy may allow us to replace sentiments of learned helplessness with feelings of learned optimism.