Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness …. it seems as if psychiatrists and psychologists have a new name for whatever ails us every week! Just remember all the name changes for what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): shell shock, bomb shock, soldier’s heart, combat fatigue, and war neurosis. Learned helplessness is none of those things and yet it is alive, well, and living within us. It is not depression, although it shares many traits with depression. Neither is it laziness nor indifference, although it shares many of those traits too. Oh, and gentlemen, think this is just another mental illness that you can blame on the X-chromosome? Think again, because your Y-chromosome makes you more susceptible to learned helplessness than your X-chromosome does. (Gender chromosomes: XX-chromosome = Female; XY-chromosome = Male).

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. – Martin E. P. Seligman

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is not a fear of failure. Neither is it laziness nor depression. It is a behavioral phenomenon marked by an expectation of failure regardless of circumstances. Outcomes are seen as uncontrollable. Skills are perceived as always lacking and an absence of support is sensed. “What is the use of even trying …” is the motto of this paradox, as, paradoxically, there is a lot of use in trying under normal circumstances. Learned helplessness is characterized by a lack of motivation, apathy, listlessness, inertia, sluggishness, passivity or unresponsiveness despite surprising or shocking events. A lack of hostility when rancor is warranted, and increased sarcasm are also symptoms. The subject may also become sedentary, and exhibit self-destructive behaviors such as grooming less, eating less or more, reduced sexual activity, and abuse drugs and alcohol. Anhedonia, where the subject lacks the capacity to experience pleasure, is also common in those with learned helplessness.

The term … is learned helplessness: the belief that nothing you do can impact your environment. Accumulated disability is “I don’t have the skills to do this.” Learned helplessness is “It doesn’t matter what I do. I’m powerless.” These two conditions are intertwined – the teenagers’ accumulated disabilities give credence to their belief that they don’t have the skills or courage to change their situation. – Madeline Levine

How does Learned Helplessness Develop?

Examples of helplessness are seen everywhere: the homeless squatting on city streets, the despondent faces of poverty, the crushing helplessness of those who just experienced a shocking event, and a newborn baby. These incidents of helplessness are transient in most cases, just periods of helplessness that can be overcome. However, learned helplessness develops when the subject continuously lacks control and subsequently just gives up.

Learned helplessness develops among those who live long term with a controlling narcissist or misogynist who is in an authoritarian position over the victim. If control is constantly taken away from the victim, the lack of control results in no expectations or motivations, just mere existence. Even when the victim tries to leave the emotionally abusive relationship, the abuser will dismiss or trivialize the victim’s feelings, or pretend to change but not actually care, and block the victim from leaving.

Helplessness learned in one area of life, such as having difficulty learning mathematics or lacking the co-ordination needed for sports, can be transferred to other areas of life easily in the face of constant failure. If a student continuously fails, he/she will lose confidence and self-esteem, resulting in feelings of failure and helplessness. As soon as failure is experienced in any other area of life, the feelings of helplessness are transferred to that area and helplessness becomes more embedded in the psyche.

Inescapable prejudice brings about the same diet of learned helplessness in the form of a lack of control and is experienced as an inevitable shock to the psyche. Another culprit is poverty and its viscous cycle. Once the mentality of poverty is embraced, helplessness is learned. The culture of poverty, once it is passed down from parent to child, becomes generational and all the more difficult to escape from.

Learned helplessness is the belief that we are at the mercy of external forces and no longer in control of what’s happening to us. Learned helplessness is a trait that we acquire, it is not inherent (inherit) at birth.

Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness

The Burly Fullback Who Learned Helplessness

To illustrate how easily helplessness is learned, Denis Waitley(“The New Psychology of Winning” on MindValley) tells the story of a burly fullback on an NFL Superbowl champion team (American football) who was hypnotized into believing that a three ounce paperweight weighed more than 500 pounds. The fullback believed that he could not lift 500 pounds, not under normal circumstances, nor under hypnosis.

The hypnotist put the three ounce paperweight on the floor and asked the fullback to pick it up (after hypnotizing him). No matter how hard he strained, muscles bulging, veins popping out, and sweating with effort, the paperweight did not budge. Biofeedback instruments attached to his arms indicated that his biceps was pulling up at a force that could lift a 400 pound barbell off the floor. So why did he fail to lift a three ounce paperweight?

The same instruments measured his triceps and showed that the triceps was pushing down with more force than the biceps was pulling up. His belief that the paperweight was too heavy to pick up manifested itself because his mind told his body how to make that belief true for him, how to make the picture in his mind true, resulting in him becoming his own worst enemy.

Obviously the helplessness learned by the subject was momentary and only lasted while under hypnosis. However, it illustrates how fast we can form a debilitating belief and learn to become helpless. When you battle with something and constantly run up against walls, ask yourself whether you truly believe that you will succeed. Some past experience tells us that we cannot do something, and therefore, we believe that we will fail, even if just subconsciously.

Breaking, in modern psychology, ‘learned helplessness.’ This is where you crush an animal’s desire to fight. Why is it that we believe broken things are tamed possessions? – Rebecca K. O’Connor

Learned Helplessness vs Behaviorism

Behaviorism theory states that behaviors are learned via interaction with the environment through a system of rewards and punishments. This process is called conditioning, operant conditioning, or instrumental conditioning. Therefore, environmental stimuli are the driving force behind behavior. Right? Wrong! Why? Internal thoughts, reasoning, assumptions, and conclusions (however right or wrong they may be) are not considered at all in Behaviorism. Contemplate this Behaviorist argument (as proposed by Seligman & Maier): Poor people perpetrate crimes because of poverty, therefore, if poverty is eliminated, crime will disappear. Now, obviously not all poor people are criminals, and not all criminals are poor.

In animal studies on learned helplessness, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier found that when the animals in the study learned that their actions to escape a shock were futile, they stopped trying to escape the shock and became passive. They gave up. And just like that, Seligman and Maier disproved the theory of behaviorism. Seligman and Maier believe that most voluntary behavior is motivated by the expectation of what the behavior will result in, and that expectation is what drives learned helplessness.

Steve Maier pointed out that passivity has two causes: either it pays to become passive or the subject had given up. Males who become passive and subservient to a stronger, dominant male will survive longer. Subjects who believe that nothing they attempt to do will alter the outcome, learn not only passivity, but also helplessness.

It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness, and a mood of helplessness prevail. – Lech Walesa

Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness

The Brain, Gender, and Learned Helplessness

Researchers investigating depression, studied neurogenesis in the hippocampi of rats while exposing the animals to controllable and uncontrollable stress. The hypothesis was that uncontrollable (not controllable) stress would curtail cell proliferation in the hippocampi of the rats (both genders) and result in the behavior of helplessness.

They used three groups of rats. Group 1 was the control group who were not subjected to any stress. The rats in Group 2 were subjected to controlled stress where they received a foot shock, but could escape the shock by jumping over a small wall. The rats in Group 3 were subjected to uncontrolled stress where they could not escape the administered foot shock at all.

The results of Group 3 were very interesting, especially when viewed through the lens of gender. Uncontrolled or acute stress reduced cell generation in the hippocampi of male rats, but did not affect cell generation in the hippocampi of the female rats. When the male rats were taught to control the stress over a period of seven days, they generated more cells than those exposed to uncontrolled stress. This means that learned helplessness can be unlearned. The proliferation of cells in the female hippocampi remained the same during uncontrolled stress and during repeated training with controllable stress.

This difference between cell proliferation in the hippocampi of male and female rats may be explained by tests that were done on a specific strain of test animals called Holtzman rats. The female Holtzman rats exhibited superior escaping abilities due to increased baseline ambulatory activity as opposed to the males. As the male Holtzman rats naturally move less than the females, they have a predisposition to immobility when stressed. This hampers their ability to learn active escape responses, hence less cell proliferation in their hippocampi. The reason why males are more affected by learned helplessness may be because an apathetic male is less likely to be seen as a threat to a dominant male, which increases his survival rate.

Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner discuss in their article, “Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain” that learned helplessness behaviors, depression, and anxiety are prevented in rats when they exercise regularly on a running wheel. Contrary to popular belief, men are more sedentary than women. Men sit behind desks at the office most of the day, sit in meetings, and then veg out in front of the TV when they get home. Women are running around doing everything else …. as my mother said, “A woman’s work is never done”!

The neurotransmitter, serotonin (5-HT – the “happy hormone”), plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Interestingly, men produce more serotonin than women, and nature knew that men, as the hunters, would only move sporadically, whereas women, as the gatherers, would move more continuously. Serotonin production in the brain is increased with exercise which contributes to stress-resistance in the brain. That’s why nature decided that the male brain needs more serotonin than the female brain. However, and probably because of producing less serotonin, the female brain is more likely to suffer from stress-related mental disorders, especially depression and anxiety. In our society, female oppression and suppression is a cultural norm. Let’s face it, the world would stand still if women were more prone to learned helplessness than men.

Just for those who are interested, the following brain regions were implicated in the behavior of learned helplessness and serotonin production:

  • The dorsal raphe nucleus
  • The basolateral amygdala
  • The central nucleus of the amygdala
  • The bed nucleus of the stria terminalis
  • The medial prefrontal cortex
  • The dorsal hippocampus
  • The septum
  • The hypothalamus

Immunization to Learned Helplessness

Donald S. Hiroto, who worked with Dr. Seligman, found that one out of every three people did not succumb to learned helplessness. Hiroto and Seligman also found that one in ten people were actually helpless from the start, even though they were not subjected to the uncontrollable stress.

So, what makes certain people immune to learned helplessness? In experimental settings, learned helplessness was only situational and disappeared over time. The best way to deal with uncontrollable stress is to not take it personally. Remember previous experiences where you were able to produce a desired outcome by beating the odds or rolling with the punches. Cognitive therapy can help to change the mindset of someone entrenched in learned helplessness from being fixed to that of a growth mindset. May I recommend the work of Carol Dweck in this case.

The attributes exhibited by resilient people include social competence, emotional intelligence, autonomy, good problem solving skills, and having a sense of purpose. How the individual processes and evaluates bad or difficult events is key to his or her resilience. What are your thinking habits when trying to make sense of difficult situations? Do you tell yourself that you’re stupid, worthless, not enough, an idiot, and are you blaming others? Or do you explain things to yourself through the lens of being worthy, deserving, enough, valuable, and taking responsibility for your own (re)actions?

The more pessimistic your explanatory style, the easier it is to slip into learned helplessness. – David McRaney

Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness


The best take-away from all this, is that helplessness is conditioned and therefore learned. This means that the solution is right there in this “If-then” statement: If helplessness is learned, then it can be unlearned. The elephant held back by a small rope staked into the ground is thwarted by the helplessness that it learned, not by its ability. How do you speak to yourself? Your brain believes every word you say/think. Let the reconditioning begin by using only positive, uplifting words when you talk to yourself. Break big projects down into small chunks that are easily achievable. Actively remove energy vampires like narcissists and misogynists from your life. Instead of seeing a problem for every solution, see a solution for every problem. Change all feelings of learned helplessness into empowering beliefs by learning optimism instead.

Want to know more


    The New Psychology of Winning by Denis Waitley, Day 38 Challenges as Opportunities, Day 39 Learned Helplessness vs Learned Optimism on MindValley

    Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

    Different Brains, Different Learners: How to Reach the Hard to Reach by Eric Jensen

    Neurogenesis and helplessness are mediated by controllability in males but not in females by Tracey J Shors 1, Jason Mathew, Helene M Sisti, Carol Edgecomb, Steven Beckoff, Christina Dalla

    Strain, sex, and open-field behavior: factors underlying the genetic susceptibility to helplessness by Eimeira Padilla 1, Douglas Barrett, Jason Shumake, F Gonzalez-Lima

    Females do not express learned helplessness like males do by Christina Dalla 1, Carol Edgecomb, Abigail S Whetstone, Tracey J Shors

    Learned Helplessness – Wikipedia

    Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness

    Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

    Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness

    Image by Info from Pixabay

    Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness

    Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

    Amoure Kleu, Learned Helplessness

    Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

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