• Learned helplessness is a psychological term coined in the 60s

  • This theory suggests that feeling that we have no power to change our situation may lead to depression and other mental health difficulties

  • Learned helplessness can be unlearned with help, find a therapist here

Way back when it was still ethical to do horrendous experiments on animals, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania conducted an experiment on dogs that thankfully could not be performed today.

He used three groups of dogs. The first group of dogs were trapped in cages and were repeatedly administered painful electric shocks. These dogs were unable to escape the shocks which were administered several times. The second group of dogs were given the same shocks, but they could easily escape from their cages. The third group of dogs was a control group who were not subjected to shocks.

He then put all three groups of dogs together and subjected them to more shocks. However, this time, all of the dogs could easily escape the shocks by jumping over a small wall.

The dogs who were being shocked for the first time, and the group who had been able to escape before, immediately jumped over the wall and escaped the shocks. But the poor dogs who had previously been exposed to inescapable shocks did not even attempt to run away. Even though they only had to jump over a small wall to escape, they remained motionless. In effect this group of dogs had learned to feel helpless from their past experience. Because they had experienced their previous traumas as inescapable, they believed that this present trauma was inescapable too.

If we relate this example to people, we can understand that, when we repeatedly experience severe difficulties or traumas in which we have no control, we often learn to feel helpless. Sometimes we believe that there is nothing that we can do to change what’s happening to us. Even when an option does arise for relief or positive change, we may not necessarily take it. Why? Because we feel helpless to change the situation. 

Have you ever heard the saying “rather the devil you know”? We often choose to stay in a bad situation even though we are aware that it’s not good for us because we are afraid that changing this will be even worse.

After a very difficult or traumatic incident, we often end up losing the idea that we can change things. We may experience intrusive, pessimistic thoughts like “this will never get better” or “nothing I do is going to be good enough”.

The good news is that, a lot of our learned helplessness is a matter of perception. Just like the dogs who experienced in escapable shocks believed that they were helpless to escape later shocks, they weren’t actually helpless. They could escape by jumping over the small wall.

Unlearning this helplessness isn’t always easy. The researchers from the experiment I mentioned, found that offering the dogs treats or encouragement didn’t help them to jump to the small wall and escape the shocks. It was only when the researchers physically moved the dogs and showed them that they could escape that the dogs started to challenge their learned helplessness. Most of the dogs had to be physically moved by the researchers at least twice before they had unlearned this helplessness.

Many of us experience learned helplessness due to previous traumas in our lives in which we had no control. We may have been left to feel helpless and may not aware of our agency and ability to change our situations. A good first step is realising and noticing when we have these pessimistic thoughts. We can then begin to challenge these thoughts.

Have you ever had a cheerleader in your life, someone who sees the best in you and really believes in you? Maybe your cheerleader is someone in your life now, or someone who really believed in you in your childhood. Consider what your this person would say to these thoughts. Perhaps by listening to this voice, you may slowly begin to break free from the prison of learned helplessness.

If you know that you need more help with this, you could also try therapy. A good therapist can be like the researcher, carrying the dogs the over the wall, time and time again until they learned that they could carry themselves.

Donna Mitchell is a verified Welldoing online psychologist

Further reading

The lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences

How childhood memories affect our present

Living with the bear: the long-term impact of childhood difficulties

Why we internalise shame in childhood

How our childhood affects our sense of self-worth