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Learned helplessness; The hidden reason for frustration and reluctance to try to change the situation

Study guide

When something bad happens, we often tend to try to reduce its negative effects. However, there are those who think that they have no control over the situation and can do nothing to improve the situation. They tend to step aside and raise their hands in a sign of surrender. These people are captivated by learned helplessness. Why is that? To understand this behavior, join us in this article.

What is learned helplessness?

According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness occurs when a person is in a stressful, difficult, and uncontrollable situation for a long time. As a result, once he can get rid of these conditions, he will no longer try to free himself; Because his mind is accustomed to those conditions. The person has learned that he is incapable and can not work to change the situation; Even when change is possible. It is as if these people have forgotten to seize the opportunity. Such a person has learned helplessness.

How was learned helplessness discovered?

This concept was first discovered when studying the behavior of animals and by chance. Martin Seligman and Steven Meyer, two famous American psychologists, first observed this complication in dogs in 1967. They placed two groups of dogs in two boxes with a short obstacle in front of each box. One of the boxes received an electric shock and the other lacked this feature. Dogs that had received an electric shock before and repeatedly after hearing an alarm did not try to jump over the obstacle when they were in the shock box.

The two researchers conducted other experiments to find out the root of the passivity of dogs conditioned by electric shock. They divided the dogs into three groups:

  • The first group were those who were restrained and then released;
  • The second group were those who were restrained but received an electric shock, although they could prevent the shock by pressing a button in front of them;
  • And the third group of those who received a shock like the previous group, but could not control it and prevent it.

All three groups of dogs were then returned to the same boxes. The first and second groups quickly learned to jump over obstacles and get rid of electric shocks. But the third group did not try to escape despite their ability. This meant that third-class dogs had learned from previous experience that their efforts were in vain.

Examples of helplessness learned in humans

Although the concept of our discussion was first tested on animals, much research has been done on humans since then, and various signs have been seen in humans. To better understand the subject, consider the following examples:

  • A child who frequently fails to solve math problems or does not get a good grade in the exams of this course will quickly come to the conclusion that no matter how hard he tries, he will not succeed in the math lesson. As a result of this attitude, he stops trying to strengthen mathematics and will feel helpless every time he encounters a new problem.
  • A person who feels embarrassed in social or emotional relationships may gradually come to the conclusion that he or she cannot overcome his or her embarrassment, and that shyness is an integral part of him or her. As a result, not only does it not work to overcome embarrassment, it also intensifies.

Of course, researchers in their study of this concept have also come to the point that the learned helplessness is not necessarily the same in all situations; For example, in the case of the same child with a math disability, he or she may feel the same way in the math classroom, but may not feel helpless or helpless in other environments and situations that require a math account.

What is the reason for the difference in the incidence of self-taught helplessness in different people?

As mentioned, some people may experience this helplessness in all or most of their situations, while in others the learned disability occurs only in certain circumstances. what is the reason? The way people look at phenomena may explain this difference; For example, a person with a pessimistic attitude is more likely to experience learned helplessness, as these negatively observe more unpleasant aspects of a phenomenon or problem. Therefore, they are more likely to find themselves unable to change circumstances.

Learned helplessness in children

Learned disability is often rooted in childhood experiences and child care situations. Parents and caregivers who do not pay enough attention to the child, so that the child can not rely on them, are among the factors that facilitate the formation of this attitude. Learned disability may begin even at a very young age. For example, children growing up in foster care environments often show symptoms of this problem in infancy.

A child who needs help but no one is helping him may think that no matter how hard he tries, it will be useless. Repetition of such experiences may lead to the formation of an attitude of despair and helplessness in the child. An attitude that grows with the child into adulthood and casts a shadow over his life.

A child who has difficulty with his lessons may gradually develop the attitude that he is weak in a particular lesson and that no matter how hard he tries, he will not succeed. This situation leads to a deterioration of the child’s educational status and endangers his educational future. Symptoms of learned helplessness often appear during school. Even the way teachers design exam questions plays a role in creating this feeling and attitude.

In a 2004 study, two identical student groups were given two sample questions. One sample started with hard questions and the other with easy questions. There were signs of learned helplessness in the first group of students, and they were unable to answer even the simplest questions. But the second group performed much better.

Some of the symptoms of helplessness learned in children are:

  • indifference;
  • Apathy;
  • Frustration;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Stress and depression;
  • Postponing work;
  • Weakness of effort;
  • Low expectations of success;
  • Reluctance to ask for help;
  • Abandoning the problem instead of trying to solve it;
  • Relating the success of others to luck.

Learned helplessness in adults

In adulthood, learned helplessness manifests itself in the form of an individual’s inability to respond appropriately in the face of problems and difficulties. An adult with this disability admits that bad things happen and he has no control over them and can not do anything to improve himself or others. Such people usually do not try to solve their problems; Even if the conditions are right to solve the problem.

The following are examples of conditions that may lead to helplessness learned in adults:

  • Failure to gain or lose weight after regular diets;
  • Continue smoking despite numerous attempts to quit;
  • Inability to leave an inappropriate environment and stay away from the abuser (people who find themselves in such environments may, if they fail to get out of it, may give up forever and think they can never get out of the predicament of a toxic relationship).

What harms does learned helplessness do to mental health?

This helplessness may have negative effects on some mental illnesses and have a negative effect on their severity; For example, learned helplessness may exacerbate generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Research has shown that this helplessness increases the severity of stress, anxiety and depression (both in animals and in humans). Research has shown that learned helplessness increases the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder or acute depression; Especially in women who have experienced domestic violence for a long time.

When someone experiences chronic anxiety, they may gradually stop fighting their anxiety; Because he thinks he can not escape it or find a cure for it. Therefore, people with mental illnesses such as depression or chronic anxiety may refuse to accept treatment and medication.

On the other hand, with the passage of time and the eradication of learned helplessness, the person enters a traumatic cycle; That is, whenever he experiences anxiety or depression, he does not try to cure it. Thus, these complications are getting worse day by day.

Learned helplessness treatment

Research has shown that learned helplessness can be reduced; Especially if detected in the early stages of formation. Learned helplessness that has been ingrained in a person for a long time can also be reduced; But it requires effort and a longer course of treatment.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that is effective in correcting the attitudes and behaviors resulting from this helplessness. The goal of this treatment is to identify negative attitudes and replace them with optimistic and rational alternatives. This process is done by carefully examining the individual thoughts, criticizing them and breaking the patterns of negative thinking.

Animal studies have also shown that regular exercise reduces the helplessness of learning. Although this research has not been done on humans, we know that physical activity has positive effects on mental health in general and can most likely prevent numbness and depression caused by learned helplessness. Proper nutrition, meditation and mindfulness are also effective in changing a person’s attitudes and mental horizon.


Learned helplessness can have a profound effect on a person’s quality of life and mental health. People with this condition experience severe depression and stress and decreased motivation. Of course, not all people show this in the same way. Different childhood experiences and quality of life affect the severity of the disease.

If you feel you have experienced learned helplessness, it is best to see a psychotherapist to begin the treatment process to reduce your helplessness attitude.

Warning! This article is for educational purposes only and you need to consult a doctor or specialist to use it. more information






Learned helplessness; The hidden reason for frustration and reluctance to try to change the situation

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