Learned Helplessness: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Learned Helplessness: All You Need to Know About

Learned helplessness is a condition that happens when a person has undergone a stressful situation repeatedly. They think they cannot control a situation, so they don't make an effort— even when possibilities are available. It leads to increased feelings of stress and depression, and for some people, linked with PTSD.

Psychologists initially depicted learned helplessness in 1967 after a succession of experiments on animals, recommending that their findings could also apply to humans. In this article, we will understand learned helplessness and different ways to overcome it.

What is Learned Helplessness?

According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness emerges when someone constantly faces unmanageable, stressful situations. They have learned that they are vulnerable in that situation and no longer try to change it, even when change is possible. Individuals experiencing learned helplessness are less able to make decisions.

Prof. Martin Seligman, one of the psychologists describing learned helplessness, has defined its three essential features:

  • Becoming passive in a traumatic situation
  • Difficulty knowing that responses can prevent trauma
  • An increase in stress and depression levels


helplessness can affect a person's ability to manage stressful situations. It can increase the risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Some of the symptoms linked with learned helplessness are:

  • Lack of control over the outcome of the situations
  • Unable to seek help
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Lack of persistence
  • Feeling frustrated
  • Demotivation
  • Less concentration on tasks
  • Passivity


Learned helplessness occurs in reaction to traumatic experiences or stressful situations in which individuals believe they have limited control over the outcome. It leads to feelings of helplessness and demotivation, which stays constant even if they get a chance to change their circumstances. It is common among people who have faced problems such as trauma, domestic violence, or childhood neglect. Medical professionals consider learned helplessness a thought disorder rather than a mental health condition. It can contribute to worsening symptoms of several mental health conditions, i.e., PTSD or depression.

Impact on Children

Learned helplessness usually begins in childhood. When caretakers don't respond properly to a child's requirement for help, the child learns that they cannot change or overcome their situation. If it happens often, the state of learned helplessness may continue into adulthood. For instance, children having a history of abuse and neglect can develop learned helplessness and feelings of powerlessness.

Some key attributes of learned helplessness in children possess:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Demotivation
  • Fewer expectations of success
  • Less persistence
  • Not seeking help
  • Demonstrating a lack of success to a lack of ability

In childhood, learned helplessness often presents itself at school. If a child studies hard to do extraordinary in their schoolwork but ends up poorly, they may feelless.Children may prevent learned helplessness by establishing resilience. Among the available factors contributing to resilience are a positive attachment to caregi ers, humour, and independence.

Impact on adults

In adults, learned helplessness occurs as a person not using or learning adaptive responses to complex situations. People in this condition generally accept that bad thing will happen, and they have little control over them. They can't resolve problems even if there is a solution.

Few examples of situations that can cause learned helplessness in adults to include:
  • Smoking, despite several attempts to quit, may lead one to believe that they will always need to smoke.
  • Being unable to reduce weight after several dietary or lifestyle changes may cause a person to believe they can't achieve it.
  • Forgetting a situation of domestic abuse can be challenging. Some people having this experience tend to leave several times before doing so for good. People may think they

can never escape the situation; even support is available.Why does Learned Helplessness Affect Some People?rson's experiences can increase the risk of aving learned helplessness. It starts after experiencing repeated traumatic events, such as domestic violence or childhood abuse. However, more importantly, not everyone who faces these circumstances will have learned helplessness.

Explanatory styles also play an essential role in learned helplessness. It is a person's style of describing an event to themselves. People with a pessimistic explanatory style — causing them to view adverse events as inevitable and resulting from their shortcomings — are more likely to develop learned helplessness.


Over time, learned helplessness can affect a person's performance at the workplace or school. Some research recommends that learned helplessness, anxiety, and low perceived self-efficacy could negatively impact performance in academic subjects.

Furthermore, students who have learned helplessness during adolescence may experience these practices into adulthood. It can influence a person's work life and social well-being. It may also increase the risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Different Ways to Overcome Learned Helplessness

People who have learned helplessness can overcome it with CBT. This therapy helps people overcome these challenges by changing their thinking and acting. In CBT, individuals can:

Final Words

The learned helplessness effects can be extensive, impacting a person's mental health, relationships, and other life factors. It raises the risk of stress, depression, and low self-esteem. Different factors, such as a history of abuse and a pessimistic outlook, can make an individual more vulnerable to learned helplessness.

However, therapy and lifestyle changes can help overcome it. Anyone who experiences learned helplessness should consult with a mental health professional who can help them take control of their circumstances.