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  • The concept of learned helplessness says that when we feel like a situation is out of our control, we eventually accept that we cannot change it and essentially give up.
  • This was first observed in a study involving dogs, in which the dogs learned to expect an electric shock—the dogs stopped trying to escape the shock and simply accepted it.
  • That said, learned helplessness is often observed in humans as well: take, for example, a kid who studies intensely for a class that he continues to fail—eventually he concludes that nothing he does will help and accepts this fate.
  • Learned helplessness can have detrimental effects on our mental health: it can create or add to feelings of anxiety and depression and ultimately prevent us from reaching our optimal potential.
  • If you think you are in a dangerous situation where you’ve experienced learn helplessness it’s important you see mental health help as soon as possible.

What Is Learned Helplessness? How Was It Discovered?

Learned helplessness is exactly as it sounds: this psychological theory asserts that when we feel like we have no control—or, when we feel helpless—we simply give up. This occurs when we’re continually exposed to a harsh environment or situation that we fail to escape. After a while, we stop trying to escape, even when a new opportunity presents itself.

This concept of learned helplessness was stumbled upon by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier, who were observing behavior in dogs conditioned to expect an electric shock. In a later phase of the study, each dog was placed in a crate that was divided down the middle by a low fence, which the dogs could easily jump over. The floor on just one side of the fence was electrified. Instead of jumping the fence, the dogs laid down. Why? They learned earlier that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks, so they gave up. This condition, known as learned helplessness, is where a human (or animal) stays in a negative situation because the past has taught them that they can’t improve their situation.

What Are Its Implications?

While learned helplessness was first observed in dogs during Seligman’s and Maier’s renowned experiment, this concept is observed in humans as well. Here are a couple examples of what learned helplessness can look like in humans and how it can have a profound influence on our lives:

  1. Johnny has been struggling in his biology class all year. He’s failed all of his tests and quizzes, even after studying the material for weeks. He decides to give tutoring a shot, but doesn’t succeed in making any improvements. Soon enough, he concludes that there’s nothing he can do to improve his performance—he feels helpless. Later, he’s required to take another bio class and experiences that same feeling of helplessness right off the bat.
  2. Jasmine and Colton have been dating for two years now. Their relationship developed slowly, but they eventually reached a place of deep love and trust. Just recently, however, Colton has been physically and mentally abusive. He pushes Jasmine around, calls her names, and gets mad at her for everything. Worst of all, he’s made her believe she deserves it. Jasmine wholeheartedly believes that she’s the one in the wrong. While she used to fight back, she eventually accepted that nothing she did would help her out of the situation. She feels helpless and powerless.

How Can Learned Helplessness Affect Our Mental Health?

As you can see above, learned helplessness can have some pretty serious effects on our lives—effects that, of course, relate back to our mental health. In Jasmine’s case, she’s accepted an abusive environment, which will have a profound impact on her overall wellbeing: her mental as well as emotional and physical state. In other cases, learned helplessness often contributes to increased anxiety and depression. This is especially dangerous for these individuals, as they may more easily accept their symptoms as unavoidable and untreatable. And finally, it can prevent us from excelling—from reaching our greatest potential.

If you are in a situation, in which you’re experiencing learned helplessness, it’s important that you seek help as soon as possible. A mental health professional, such as those at Thriveworks Waltham or another Thriveworks location, can assist you in reducing the symptoms of learned helplessness and overcoming the thinking patterns that contribute to it.

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