Psychiatrist Blog

What Is Learned Helplessness

What Is Learned Helplessness

In normal human experience, when bad things or negative events occur, we would like to believe that we would do whatever is necessary to change the situation. A phenomenon known as learned helplessness theory has shown that when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up.

Continue reading to learn what learned helplessness is, its symptoms, causes, and possible treatments.

So, What Is Learned Helplessness Theory?

Learned helplessness theory is seen when an animal is repeatedly subjected to a negative stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the negative stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are introduced.

While the concept is strongly tied to animal behavior, it can also apply to many situations involving humans. 

Learned helplessness occurs when people behave helplessly because they feel that they lack behavioral control over environmental events that involve their own lives. This helpless feeling can lead people to stop looking for relief or change and it curtails opportunities.

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered accidentally by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. They had observed helpless behavior in dogs that were classically conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. The dogs were placed in a cage that contained two sides separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side but not on the other. 

The dogs previously subjected to the classical conditioning made no attempts to escape, even though to avoid the electric shocks, they simply had to jump over the low barrier.

To further investigate, Seligman and Maier SF devised another experiment. In the first group, the dogs were placed into harnesses for a period of time and then released. 

Meanwhile, in the second group, the dogs were placed in the same harnesses but were given electrical shocks that could be avoided by pressing a panel with their snout. 

In the third group, the dogs received the same shocks as those in the second group, however, those in this group were not able to control the shock. 

For those dogs in the third group, the shocks were random and outside of their control.  The dogs were then placed in a cage. Dogs from the first and second groups quickly learned that jumping the barrier eliminated the shock. 

Those from the third group made no attempts to get away from the shocks.  Due to their previous experience, they developed an expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks.

Learned Helplessness in Humans

teen with learned helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness has been demonstrated in multiple animal species, but its effects have also been demonstrated in humans.

Think about this example: A child who performs poorly on any given test and assignment will quickly begin to feel that nothing he does will have any effect on his performance. When faced down the road with any type of similar task, he more than likely will experience a sense of helplessness and expect negative outcomes.

Mental Health Conditions Associated With Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness has been associated with multiple psychiatric disorders, including:

  • Clinical Depression
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Phobias
  • Introversion
  • Isolation with poor socialization

A human who feels inadequate in social environments may eventually feel that there is nothing he or she can do to overcome her feelings. This sense that her symptoms are out of control may lead her to stop trying to engage in social situations, thus making the sense of inadequacy more pronounced.

Thankfully, learned helplessness is not always seen across all settings and situations.  A student who experiments with this condition concerning a particular class will not necessarily develop learned helplessness when faced with performing a task in the real world. 

Having said that, there are situations where people may experience learned helplessness that cuts across a wide range of situations and experiences. This difference is due to multiple factors, including intrinsic genetic resilience, as well as external learned behaviors both at home and in a social or school environment.

Negative Events During Childhood May Contribute to Learned Helplessness

child with learned helplessness

Often, learned helplessness occurs and originates in childhood due to unreliable or unresponsive caregivers and or parents. This learned helplessness can begin very early in life. Children raised in institutional settings or who have experienced repeated traumatic events, often exhibit symptoms of helplessness.

When children need help but no one comes to their aid, they will be left with a feeling that nothing they do will change their lot in life. Repeated negative experiences bolster these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which can result in growing into adulthood feeling that no matter what one tries, there is nothing one can do to change life’s problems (pessimistic explanatory style). 

Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

Common symptoms of learned helplessness include:

  • Failure to ask for help
  • Frustration
  • Giving up easily
  • Not trying hard enough
  • Lack of effort
  • Low self-esteem
  • Passivity
  • Procrastination

When human beings feel that they have no behavioral control over the past events of their lives, they conclude that future events will also be uncontrollable. They learn to believe that nothing they do will ever change the outcome of an event and that they should not even try.

This is true of academic struggles, work-related frustrations, as well as interpersonal relationships. These can lead to learned helplessness. Flawed thinking is revealed as: “Since nothing I do seems to work, why try?”

Learned Helplessness and Our Mental Health

Learned helplessness will contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, and may influence the onset, severity, and persistence of conditions, such as:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Social Anxiety
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Major Depressive Disorder, as well as multiple other entities.

When you experience chronic depression or anxiety, you may eventually give up on finding relief to your symptoms because your depressed or anxious feelings seem unavoidable and untreatable. This is the explanation why people who are experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or other conditions, may refuse medications or therapy that may help relieve their symptoms. 

Learned helplessness can become a vicious cycle.  Because of this phenomenon, people fail to seek out treatment options that may help, which then contributes to greater feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

What Can Be Done to Overcome Learned Helplessness?

Like other mental health conditions, overcoming learned helplessness is possible. 

Learned helplessness can be successfully decreased if intervention occurs during early periods. Long-term learned helplessness can also be reduced eventually; however, it requires a longer-term concerted effort.  


learned helplessness therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that can be beneficial in overcoming the thinking and behavioral patterns that contribute to learned helplessness. This helps patients identify negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of learned helplessness and then replace these thoughts with more optimistic and rational thoughts. 

The process often involves analyzing ideas and actively challenging them, thus effectively changing negative thought patterns.


The use of medications is not only recommended—it is the standard of care when dealing with associated anxiety and depressive states. Talk to your Psychiatric provider to find out about specific options for care.

Seek Professional Help

psychiatry treatment

Learned helplessness can have a profound impact on mental health and our overall well-being. People who experience learned helplessness also experience symptoms of psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, elevated stress, and less motivation to take care of their physical and emotional health.

If you feel that learned helplessness might be harming your life and health, consider seeking professional medical advice by talking to your psychiatric provider about steps that you can take to address this negative thinking.

Further evaluation can lead to an accurate diagnosis and treatment that can help you replace your negative thoughts with positive ones. Such treatment will allow you to replace feelings of learned helplessness with a sense of learned optimism and hope.

For more information, get in touch with our providers at Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists.


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