Those who are taught by their life circumstances that they will continue to be terrorized despite their efforts to overcome adversity might give in to a sense of powerlessness instead. This is a phenomenon known as “learned helplessness,” when a person feels so powerless to control their circumstances that they stop making any efforts to change them. It is very common among survivors of abuse and trauma, especially victims of childhood trauma (Thompson, 2014).
Learned Helplessness: An Experiment
In the 1960’s, psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues conducted a rather ruthless, yet revealing experiment: he administered electric shocks to dogs and discovered something rather startling. There was a difference in the behavior of dogs who were previously shocked when they were placed in a new, threatening environment and the behavior of dogs who hadn’t been previously shocked.
He discovered that dogs who were persistently subjected to electric shocks prior to being put into a crate with new shocks eventually gave up trying to escape because they learned that it was unavoidable. Even when the dogs knew they had an opportunity to escape, they gave up on the initiative to do so after recognizing that their efforts might be in vain.
However, the dogs who had not been previously shocked were able to jump over a barrier in their crate to safety because they had not yet been conditioned to believe that their behavior did not make a difference.
How and why would this happen? Well, in the second scenario, they learned how to escape because their past experiences did not inform their choices. They learned they had some sense of control. In the context of learning theory, they were being trained by what behavioral psychologists call negative reinforcement, in which a response is strengthened by the removal of a negative stimuli (in this case, the shock).
They learned that it was rewarding for them to jump over the barrier in the crate to safety to prevent being shocked in the first place. Dogs who developed a sense of learned helplessness due to previous shocks, however, gave up much more easily because they learned that there was no reward and developed a sense that their situation was inescapable.
What Does Learned Helplessness Look Like In Human Behavior?
Applying the results of this experiment to human behavior, the theory of learned helplessness can apply to various situations, including depression and the effects of trauma. Examples of learned helplessness in everyday life can range from the minor to the major and could look like the following:
- A man with a history of failed relationships and horrific dates may stop trying to date altogether to risk avoiding rejection.
- After suffering numerous physical assaults, a domestic violence survivor might feel powerless to gain support and leave her abusive relationship. This effect might be especially prominent if she is met with ridicule or shaming from outsiders or from retaliation from her abuser for speaking out.
- A victim of bullying might learn after numerous incidents where he is a target of vicious taunts that no one is going to help him, so he stops fighting back and passively “takes” the behavior day after day at school.
- Survivors with Complex PTSD may have experienced so many inescapable, traumatic situations that they become apathetic in their efforts to alleviate depression and stop seeking support.
In the worst case scenarios, individuals with a sense of learned helplessness and perceived burdensomeness (feeling they are a burden to others) may commit suicide because they see no other route to “escape” their situation.
There are many scenarios where learned helplessness can arise and it’s important to address it, especially in the aftermath of trauma. As you learned from Seligman’s (albeit cruel) experiments on dogs, those who develop learned helplessness ignore routes of escape or options to change their circumstances even if those opportunities are available. They may give up or give in even if they have ways to constructively channel their experiences or overcome their adversity.
How To Overcome Learned Helplessness
So now that you know what learned helplessness is, how do you overcome it? Here are some tips that may help.
With the help of a therapist, it is helpful to identify which aspects of your life are really insurmountable and which ones you do have control over.
Restructuring your thoughts is challenging, but it can be done. Therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for example, allow you to focus on changing your thoughts and cognitive biases in order to modify your behavior. This can help you to battle the black-and-white thinking that often accompanies learned helplessness.
In order to do this, you – ironically enough – have to give up some control. You have to practice effective techniques that reframe your usual ways of thinking. Rather than jumping to thoughts like “This is useless,” or “I give up,” you have to start to replace unhelpful distortions with healthier modes of thinking, like “There are certain aspects of life that cannot be controlled. I cannot control how others think of me or how they react to me. However, I can control how I react to other people.”
You may not be able to control what other people are willing to give you. But you can control what opportunities you create for yourself. These new thoughts will allow you to increase your sense of perceived agency and you will then be more willing to see opportunities for growth as they arise.
For those trapped in abusive relationships, these changed belief systems could lead them to seeking support from their local communities, perhaps telling a friend about their situation or finding ways to detach from their abuser. For those who’ve “given up” on dating and romance, these new, empowered thoughts might motivate them towards self-development rather than a sense of unworthiness. It could propel them to examine what type of partner they’re looking for and to take steps to improve their confidence rather than assuming that their situation is hopeless. These are just some examples of how changing your thoughts can change your life.
Reengage your body in powerful movement to battle your sense of helplessness.
Trauma therapists have acknowledged the importance of mind-body healing to offset the sense of paralysis that can accompany traumatic events (Clark et. al, 2014; Tippet & Van der Kolk, 2014). When we’ve been made to feel powerless time and time again and this powerlessness becomes ingrained within our bodies, it’s helpful to reengage the body in powerful movement to combat this sense of helplessness.
Whether that means enrolling in a kickboxing class, doing trauma-focused yoga or scheduling weekly runs on the treadmill, propelling the body back into action can be a way to train yourself into believing in your own agency. It also helps to release repressed emotions and provides a healthy outlet for any trapped discomfort within the body related to the shock, fear and anxiety associated with some of these traumas.
Experiment with taking new risks and start small. Surround yourself with support while doing so.
After working with a therapist to overcome some of the helplessness you might feel, it might be helpful to test out your new beliefs in the real world. Start small. Make requests to people you trust that you know will be honored, so you can start to rebuild your sense of trust that things can and will go your way.
Seek out some opportunities to succeed – whether they be social or professional – to meet your needs and build a sense of self-efficacy. Surround yourself with supportive people and support groups that can help encourage you and provide a safety net as you take these risks. Experts note that a healthy support network can help to increase a sense of autonomy and help with self-esteem (Masi et. al, 2011).
Those who support you can “cheerlead” your efforts to succeed and help provide emotional support when you’re encountering setbacks on your journey. All this combined with professional support can help you to cope with any feelings of anxiety or fear as you learn to rise above your emotional paralysis and into proactive steps. To create a life filled with exciting possibilities requires moving away from your sense of helplessness and onto a new sense of hopefulness.