Identifying Learned Helplessness

June 30, 2023

What is leaned helplessness? A recent article in MEDICALNEWSTODAY states “In psychology, learned helplessness is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly.” These individuals come to believe that they are unable to control or change a situation, so they do not try—even when opportunities for change become available. This behavior can lead to increased feelings of stress and depression and for some, it is linked with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Learned helplessness can have a deep impact on mental health and well-being. People who experience learned helplessness are also likely to experience symptoms of depression, elevated stress levels, and less motivation to take on their physical health.

What are the symptoms? Research states learned helplessness can impair a person’s ability to handle stressful situations.  It can also increase the risk of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Common symptoms associated with learned helplessness include:

  • feeling a lack of control over the outcome of situations
  • failing to ask for help
  • low self-esteem
  • decreased motivation
  • putting less effort into tasks
  • lack of persistence
  • feelings of frustration
  • passivity
  • giving up easily

What are the causes? Learned helplessness often occurs in response to stressful situations or traumatic experience in which a person feels they have limited control over the outcome. It is particularly common among people who have experienced issues like trauma, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.

This leads to feelings of helplessness and a loss of motivation, which remain even once they have the opportunity to make chances to their circumstances.

Although medical professionals usually consider learned helplessness as a type of thought disorder rather than a mental health condition, it can contribute to or worsen symptoms of several mental health conditions, including PTSD or depression.

Although learned helplessness begins in childhood, if the behavior goes unchecked it may persist into adulthood. For example, children who experience prolonged abuse and neglect can develop learned helplessness and feelings of powerlessness. Characteristics of learned helplessness in children include:

  • low self esteem
  • low motivation
  • low expectations of success
  • less persistence
  • not asking for help
  • ascribing a lack of success to a lack of ability
  • ascribing success to factors beyond their control, such as luck

In adults, learned helplessness presents itself as a person not using or learning adaptive responses to difficult situations. People in this state typically believe bad things will happen and they have little control over them. Generally, they are unsuccessful in resolving issues even when there is a potential solution. Examples of learned helplessness in adults include:

  • Continuing to smoke despite several attempts to quit, which may cause a person to believe they will always smoke.
  • Being unable to lose weight after making various dietary or lifestyle changes, which may cause a person to believe it will never happen and give up trying.
  • Leaving a situation of domestic abuse several times, before doing so for good.  A person may believe they can never escape the situation, even when help and support are available.

Although not everyone who experiences these events will develop learned helplessness. If you’re living with any of these symptoms, contact us today and join a community who understands what you are going through. We’re here and ready to help!