Learned Helplessness: What It Is, How It Happens, Treatments

Learned helplessness is a serious psychiatric condition. It occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. They believe  they are unable to control or change their situation, so they give up. 

This illness was first described in 1967, and was based on results from experiments on animals. Psychologists believe that these findings can also apply to humans.


This condition leads to increased feelings of stress and depression. For some people, it is also linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


learned helplessness

Learned Helplessness: What Is It?

According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness happens when someone repeatedly faces uncontrollable, stressful situations, and can’t overcome it.

They “learned” that they are helpless  and are unable to change it, even when change is possible.


There are three key features of this condition:

  1. becoming passive in the face of trauma
  2. difficulty learning that responses can control trauma
  3. can increase in stress levels

Two scientists conducted experiments that developed and described the theory of learned helplessness.

Prof. Seligman and Prof. Steven F. Maier conducted studies on dogs, in which they exposed the animals to a series of electric shocks.


The dogs that could not control the shocks eventually showed signs of depression and anxiety. Those that could press a lever to stop the shocks did not.

In follow-up research, the dogs that could not control the shocks in the first experiment did not even try to avoid the shocks, despite the fact that they could have done so by jumping over a barrier. They had learned to become helpless.


Learned Helplessness: Linked To Mental Illness

Research shows that it increases stress, anxiety, and depression in both humans and animals.


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

In this therapy, patients:

  • 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 behaviors 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


In addition, several studies suggest that consistent exercise can prevent learned helplessness in animals.


In addition, eating a healthful diet, meditating, and practicing mindfulness are other lifestyle changes that can boost a person’s mental health and outlook.

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