Feeling helpless and hopeless can be very common with mental health issues, but when your past experiences fuel your sense of helplessness, and make you think you can never avoid certain behavioural patterns or outcomes, you may be affected by ‘learned helplessness’. So, what is learned helplessness and how can we treat it?
Learned helplessness is a phenomenon first studied in the 1960s and 70s by Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier, who discovered it present in animals. Seligman and Maier’s experiments at the University of Pennsylvania found that dogs who’d received small electric shocks later gave up trying to jump over a fence and escape, as they believed they would be shocked again. The dogs had remembered their own helplessness and decided not to risk another shock. A comparative trial with dogs who hadn’t been shocked found that they jumped the fence.
What is Learned Helplessness in Practice?
Just as in animals, learned helplessness in humans is about applying negative past experiences to a present or future experience, even if your circumstances are different. Despite signs that you may have a positive outcome, or that you’re in a safer situation than before, you firmly believe you are powerless to seek help or change.
Related studies by clinical psychologists Abramson, Metalsky and Alloy, in 1989, established a sub-type of depression called hopelessness depression, and the hopelessness theory of suicide was publicised in 2000 by Abramson et al (if you are worried that someone is feeling so hopeless they may attempt suicide, do seek immediate help for them, through their GP, by calling 111 or talking to an organisation like the Samaritans).
We may see learned helplessness in relationship patterns: the person who believes their abusive past relationship will lead to future abusive partners; the child whose memories of neglect mean they are terrified of being abandoned, and believe abandonment is inevitable, even as an adult.
If your friend or relative shows signs of learned helplessness, you will probably feel frustrated. However much you tell them that things can get better, and that one or two bad experiences don’t make them powerless to change, your words may fall on deaf ears. People with learned helplessness may struggle with self-care and healthy habits, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. That’s when they need psychological intervention.
Treatment for Learned Helplessness
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is ideal for treating learned helplessness, because it involves working through your core beliefs and thought patterns. By analysing situations and automatic thoughts, you can start to believe in the future, move away from assumptions about inevitability, and trust in the power of change. Your future doesn’t have to mirror your past.
Written by guest contributor Vikram Das for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).