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What is Learned Helplessness?

The world is going through an uncertain and difficult time. You might struggle to feel in control - and this can lead to feelings of helplessness. Here’s what you can do about it.

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The mind is complex and interesting – it tries to organise things and likes to feel in control. This is why we work better when there is no clutter around us, or why beautiful, symmetrical patterns make us happy. 

Unfortunately, the world around us is always changing. More often than we’d like,  we might find ourselves in situations that are out of our control. When people feel like they cannot control what is happening to them or around them, they might begin to feel helpless.

When a person experiences continuous pain and suffering which they have no control over for a long period of time, they may develop what is called Learned Helplessness. It is a phenomenon where people begin to expect emotional distress and suffering and believe that there is no way to escape it. This goes to the point where a person may stop trying to avoid the suffering as they consider it inevitable.

Human beings are not the only ones who experience this – many other species experience learned helplessness too. This is why many times we see herds of elephants being tethered by a small cord. When these elephants were babies, the cord would have been strong enough to hold them. As they grew, they continued holding on to the thought that the cord is too strong for them, even though this is no longer true. New research shows that even bees and zebrafish show this kind of learned helplessness.

In human beings, learned helplessness often develops due to an individual’s childhood experiences. When children need help but do not get any from the people or environments around them, they may believe that nothing can change their situation. When this happens repeatedly, they may grow into adults who feel that there is nothing one can do to change their problems. This is especially likely in case of homes with parental abuse or neglect.

Academic struggles can also lead to feelings of learned helplessness. When students put in effort to do well, yet are unsuccessful, they may feel like their hard work does not make a difference and that they do not have control over their performance. Eventually, the student might lose interest and stop studying that subject altogether.

The Link with Depression

Learned helplessness is thought to contribute to depression as well as anxiety. Studies have linked this phenomenon to the onset, severity, and persistence of conditions like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). This is understandable – after all, feeling that you can’t control a negative situation in your life can make you feel despondent, and recognising that you are helpless can leave you feeling demotivated and low.

There are 2 types of helplessness, both of which can lead to depression. The first kind, universal helplessness, is where a person considers a situation to be so bad that they believe that nothing can be done to improve it. This is the reason a lot of people don’t even vote during elections – they just believe that no matter what anyone does, the outcome will be negative and out of their control. 

The second kind, personal helplessness, is where a person believes they cannot improve their situation, but will acknowledge that someone else in the same situation may be able to do so. People who feel personally helpless have lower self-esteem and believe that others can solve the problems that they are unable to. 

Did you know that several people refuse medication for depression? This is because they believe that nothing they do will change how they feel. This is an example of how learned helplessness manifests in people with depression.

 Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Research suggests that learned helplessness can be successfully decreased if intervention occurs early. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Positive Psychology can be effective in reducing symptoms of learned helplessness. The goal in CBT is to identify unhelpful ways of thinking and to then replace them with healthier, more balanced thoughts. On the other hand, positive psychology focuses on increasing an individual’s experience of positive emotions and aims to improve their overall well-being in life.

Take a look at some strategies based on these two schools of thought that can be used to overcome this sense of learned helplessness:

Change your environment if possible

When you find yourself in a difficult situation, focus on what you can change in your environment. How can you increase the likelihood of good events? How can you reduce the chances of a bad outcome taking place? Change what you can in your surroundings to feel better. 

For instance, when therapists are treating individuals who are victims of abuse, they often focus on helping the victim find a safe space within their homes where they can be by themselves and feel better. Taking a less extreme example, if you feel helpless as the result of being stuck in a job, you can either switch jobs (changing the environment in which you work) or modify certain aspects of your current job to feel more satisfied with it.

Identify and challenge negative thoughts

Your feelings in a situation are almost always the result of the way you think about it. Having unhelpful thoughts about a difficult situation can make you experience negative emotions. The good news is that thoughts can be changed – they aren’t facts. By changing the way we think, we can end up changing the way we feel.

When you find yourself feeling helpless, pause and try to identify the thoughts running through your mind. How are you perceiving a situation? Are your thoughts and beliefs about the situation valid? Do you have any evidence to support your belief? Could there be possible alternative explanations for the situation? Asking these questions can help you reframe your thoughts and develop healthier beliefs. Once you change the way you think about the situation, you may start to feel better. 

Thought work requires time and effort, and you might need professional help along the way. While you may not be able to meet a therapist in person right now, there are multiple platforms that offer online therapy to help you get the support you need.

Plan your days

If you are experiencing depression, make a plan to complete certain activities in your day. Doing even a single task in a day can help you feel a sense of control and accomplishment. You can start off small, and gradually complete larger/more tasks over time. Planning your day can give you a sense of structure and control, and getting things done can help you feel confident in your ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Doing this can then give you the motivation and confidence to tackle broader problems in life around work, relationships, or even personal growth.

Set SMART goals for yourself

Learned helplessness can interfere with your productivity and cause you to doubt your own abilities. Setting and achieving goals consistently can help you regain a sense of control. 

A good tool to use while setting goals is the SMART technique. In other words, your goal should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. So when it comes to setting goals, make sure that you:

  • Define your goal clearly (specific)
  • Decide how you would measure progress and know once you’ve achieved your goal (measurable)
  • Set a goal that is realistic and reasonable given your skills and abilities (achievable)
  • Pick a goal that ties into your bigger goals and life expectations (relevant)
  • Establish a timeline for your goal (timed)

Once you set a goal, make a plan to achieve it. Do one small thing each day to move closer to achieving it.

Develop meaningful relationships

Having meaningful relationships with others can help you feel better about yourself. Experiencing a sense of support can help you realise that you are not alone, and that you have others to help you – especially in times of adversity where you might feel more helpless than usual. Identify people who help you feel good about yourself and spend time engaging with them. Talk to them about your struggles and ask them for specific help that can help you feel better.

Replace helplessness with acceptance

No matter what, there might always be a situation in life that you have no control over. In such cases, you might find yourself feeling helpless and unfortunate. Always ask yourself, “What can I control?” If you realise that nothing about this situation can be changed, shift your focus to something you can do to feel better. Focus on accepting the unchangeable situation and identify what you can do to alleviate your distress. Engage in a coping activity to experience positive emotions. You can also practise affirmations – positive statements – that focus on building a sense of acceptance. 

When you experience hardships in life, it can be easy to fall into the learned helplessness mindset. When this happens, remember that learned helplessness can be overcome by changing your negative thoughts and taking action to experience a sense of control. It isn’t an easy task to do, but with the right strategies in place, you can make changes in your life to feel and cope better.

References

Cherry, K. (2009, June 4). What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen? Retrieved from Verywell Mind website: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-learned-helplessness-2795326

Learned helplessness: Examples, symptoms, and treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved May 7, 2020, from www.medicalnewstoday.com website: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325355#management

Learned Helplessness: What It Is and How to Overcome It. (2016, May 22). Retrieved May 7, 2020, from Chillpill | Ancient Wisdom on Life, Success, & Happiness website: https://www.chillpill.io/learned-helplessness/

Rokham. (2019, February 26). 3 methods to overcome learned helplessness and reach optimism – Psychology Compass. Retrieved from Psychology Compass website: https://psychologycompass.com/blog/overcoming-learned-helplessness/

Shook, K. (2019, July 29). Overcoming Learned Helplessness. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from Medium website: https://medium.com/@shookkri/overcoming-learned-helplessness-99a3b6bb1e3d

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