Have you ever experienced prolonged periods of stress? You’re not alone. If you answered yes, you may have also experienced feeling like nothing you do will make a difference.
This mindset is often called “learned helplessness.” It’s a tough place to be, but fortunately, there are ways you can overcome it. And once you do, you’ll be able to feel more confident in any situation.
In this article, we’ll look at what learned helplessness is, the signs to look out for, its causes, and helpful tips to overcome it.
What is Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness is a term used in psychology to describe a negative state of mind in which an individual believes they have no control over their situation and thus does not try to alter it. Someone in a state of helplessness may feel, for example, that nothing they do matters.
The concept of learned helplessness was first coined by psychologists Steven Maier1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/?term=Maier%20SF%5BAuthor%5D and Martin Seligman2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/?term=Seligman%20ME%5BAuthor%5D. They conducted cruel experiments on dogs3https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0024514 in the late 1960s to determine whether or not they would develop a learned behavior of passivity and helplessness toward electric shocks when it seemed the dogs could do nothing to escape it.
They concluded that the dogs’ sense of helplessness was a learned behavior.
Further studies4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4920136/#R86 since then have determined a sense of passivity toward long-term adverse stimulation is actually an unlearned state of mind, meaning helplessness is not necessarily learned. Furthermore, they discovered that control is something that can be learned, even in the presence of prolonged negative events.
What’s encouraging about these studies is that since control can be learned, helping people find agency can support those who struggle with depression and anxiety.
Let’s look at the signs and causes of learned helplessness…
Signs of learned helplessness
The signs5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4920136/ of learned helplessness include a passive state of mind in the face of trauma, struggling to learn how to respond to trauma, and increased stress levels. Those who experience learned helplessness may also lack motivation, be unable to ask others for help, give up easily, and be generally pessimistic toward finding success.
Does this sound similar to depression? That’s because learned helplessness is often linked to depression, but it is not the same thing. Research suggests4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4920136/#R86 that the signs of learned helplessness share many commonalities with the signs of depression, including:
- Sad mood
- Loss of interest
- Weight loss
- Sleep problems
- Psychomotor problems
- Indecisiveness or poor concentration
Similar to depression, learned helplessness is often the result of loss of feeling like you have agency or control over your life. Research shows5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4920136/ that learned helplessness can often lead to depression as well.
Causes of learned helplessness
Learned helplessness is usually caused by prolonged exposure6https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203 to traumatic events and stress that are perceived as uncontrollable. Those who have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect, or poverty are more at risk of symptoms of learned helplessness than others.
Let’s look at how learned helplessness manifests itself in different contexts…
Examples of Learned Helplessness
Education: self-esteem & shame
Students with a mindset of learned helplessness might see themselves as unable to learn, overcome, or solve a problem. This could result from various factors, including low self-esteem due to a parent who constantly puts them down, bullying from other children, or an experience of shame for making a mistake.
In addition to low self-esteem, these circumstances also add to a student’s stress levels, making it harder to think clearly.
Relationships: abuse & codependency
Learned helplessness is common among victims of abuse who have been traumatized by their abuser, perceiving that they have no options for escape or agency over the situation.
However, learned helplessness might also exist in codependent relationships where abuse may not be as apparent. For example, people in codependent relationships might often make excuses for another’s behavior and feel manipulated or guilty if they don’t do something to please another.
In these relationships, a lack of boundaries is prevalent, making people feel obligated to one another without a sense of self.
Workplace: toxic cultures
Learned helplessness in the workplace setting might be more common among those with a pessimistic mindset toward overcoming obstacles or achieving goals. This mindset may result from past experiences where employees felt like their effort did not lead to success, their voice didn’t matter, or someone else was ultimately in control of the situation.
Learned helplessness among employees in the workplace is more common in toxic cultures where micromanagement and poor leadership are prevalent.
How Do You Overcome Learned Helplessness? 9 Tips for Healthy Living
Learned helplessness treatment includes therapy, building healthy boundaries, self-care, and forming healthy connections. If you struggle with learned helplessness, try these helpful tips to change your mindset.
Play a winnable game
One great way to start to build up a sense of control and agency in your life is by starting small with activities or games where you feel like you do have a sense of control. Playing a game that you’re good at is a great place to get started. Try hosting a game night with the right friends and enjoy a good time while you’re at it!
If you don’t like games, maybe you enjoy puzzles, coloring, or organizing your closet. As long as the activity or game gives you a sense of control and agency, that’s what matters most.
Pro Tip: Pick a co-op game like Hanabi to ensure everyone wins!
Take care of yourself
Engaging in self-care is an important step in reframing your mind from a sense of helplessness to a sense of agency and control. Start with eating well, getting some exercise, and getting enough sleep. If your sense of helplessness has reached a level of depression, try taking it one step at a time with small new habits.
For example, you might create some simple new habits that include:
- Getting up early and making your bed
- Washing your face and getting dressed every morning, even if you don’t have to go anywhere
- Drinking a big glass of water every two to three hours
- Taking a daily walk around the block
- Watering your plant/feeding your pet
- Calling a friend or family member you enjoy once a week
- Practicing daily guided yoga or mediation
- Going to bed by 9 pm every night
- Seeing a therapist every week or every other week
If you need inspiration, a social influencer, and mental health advocate, Elyse Meyers provides great encouragement in this area!
Once you have the basics down, advance to other areas of self-care and include things like getting a monthly massage, taking an exercise class, or joining an art therapy group.
Do something kind for someone else
Research shows7https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5508200/ that one way to help fight depression and a sense of hopelessness is by thinking outside of yourself about something you can do for someone else.
The act of engaging in generosity or an act of kindness improves your mood and releases serotonin in your brain. It also helps reduce stress8http://www.techtimes.com/articles/116401/20151217/act-of-kindness-helps-reduce-effects-of-stress.htm and gives you a sense of agency and control, which are important factors in overcoming learned helplessness.
Here are a few simple ideas to get your juices flowing if you’re not sure where to get started:
- Send a letter to someone you’re grateful for and let them know what they mean to you
- Buy a surprise meal for someone
- Volunteer at your local food bank or charity resale shop
- Overtip your server just because
- Write a positive recommendation for someone on LinkedIn
Looking for more ideas? Check out our article for 62 ideas to spread kindness!
De-stress with activities you enjoy
Prolonged exposure to stress is one of the biggest contributors to learned helplessness. One way to prevent and treat a mindset of helplessness is to get out of your element.
Try an activity that helps de-stress you. It could be as simple as engaging in a fun hobby or completely escaping from a potentially triggering environment for a little while.
Here are a few de-stressing ideas:
- Turn off your phone and computer and get out to take a walk through nature
- Have a meal with an old friend who makes you laugh
- Get away for the weekend to a little town you’ve always wanted to visit
- Take a class based on a hobby you’re interested in (art, dance, woodworking, music, etc.)
- Turn on your favorite music, turn it up, and dance around your house
- Bake cookies for your neighbors and then visit with them
It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it brings you joy and reengages your brain on less stressful thoughts.
Special Tip: Do you feel like you don’t enjoy anything? Start with activities you used to enjoy at one point and see if it triggers some happy memories.
Create boundaries or cut some ties
Some people who struggle with learned helplessness often find themselves in this state of mind due to unhealthy relationships in their lives. Whether it is a codependent or abusive relationship, it may be time to create some boundaries or even cut ties with the toxic people in your life.
To determine if it’s time to create boundaries, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you have a hard time saying no to people?
- Do you feel like your opinion or needs don’t matter?
- Do you struggle with sharing how you really feel?
- Are you afraid of what other people will think of you if you don’t meet their expectations?
- Do you feel obligated to do things for others and guilty if you don’t?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it might be time to create boundaries or cut ties, especially if you are in an abusive situation.
Pro Tip: Boundary setting is not easy and often uncomfortable, but it is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Check out our article outlining five ways to draw the line politely. We also highly recommend books like Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud or Set Boundaries Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. If you are able, we highly recommend seeing a professional counselor regularly as well.
Form healthy connections
In addition to creating boundaries, it’s also important to form healthy relationships with others to treat learned helplessness. These connections can help you be the best version of yourself and increase your happiness. But how do you know what makes a healthy connection?
Ask yourself these questions to determine whether or not you should move forward with forming a deeper bond with someone or even if it might be time to cut some ties with current relationships:
- Do I feel safe being myself around this person?
- Does this person care about my feelings and ideas?
- Do I feel free to say no to this person without feeling guilty?
- Does this person hold things in confidence?
- Does this person want the best for me, even if it might not make them happy?
If you can say yes to these questions, you can feel more confident about forming a healthy connection with someone. If you say no to most of these questions, see the tip above on creating boundaries or cutting ties.
Get out of your comfort zone
It can be easy to get stuck in a state of learned helplessness. The discomfort can even start to feel comfortable or normal. When you feel stuck, getting out of your comfort zone can be a great way to get a new perspective and change your mindset.
From our article on how to get out of your comfort zone, one of our favorite ideas is rejection therapy.
Rejection therapy can help you overcome learned helplessness by putting you in a position to ask others for help. It forces you to face potential rejection and keep going, which can help reframe your mindset toward hopefulness and optimism.
In Jia Jiang’s TED talk, he describes what it was like to go through 100 days of rejection therapy9https://www.rejectiontherapy.com/100-days-of-rejection-therapy by challenging himself with tasks including:
- Asking a stranger to borrow $100
- Requesting a “burger refill”
- Ask strangers for compliments
- Play soccer in someone’s backyard
- And many more
Check out Jia Jiang’s Ted talk!
What I learned from 100 days of rejection | Jia Jiang – YouTube
Take care of an animal or plant
Much like helping someone else, caring for an animal or plant is also a great way to reduce stress and anxiety10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408111/. When taking care of something and experiencing the positive effect of what it feels like to influence another’s well-being, you can reframe your mindset from passivity to activity and a sense of hopefulness.
Some of the other benefits of pet ownership include receiving unconditional love. Additionally, taking care of a plant or garden can provide a sense of symbolism for self-care and pruning out what is no longer serving your growth.
Hit the reset button
When you feel helpless, it can be hard to know what to do next. Your sense of helplessness doesn’t serve you and could lead to depression or general unhappiness. If you want to change, you might need help figuring out where to start, but fortunately, there are steps you can take to hit the reset button and reinvent yourself.
In our article on how to reinvent yourself, Vanessa Van Edwards engages in a conversation with author Todd Herman about his book, The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life.
The Alter Ego Effect Can Change Your Life – YouTube
Benefits of Gaining Control Over Your Environment
Fortunately, learned helplessness is not a state of mind you must stay in. When you begin to take steps towards improving your mental health and gaining control over your environment, you’ll begin to reap the reward and benefits.
The benefits of gaining control over your environment include:
- Regaining your sense of agency and control
- Feeling more empowered
- Fighting anxiety
- Overcoming depression
- Reducing stress
- Increasing your level of happiness
- Building stronger connections with others
- Building healthy boundaries
As you begin to gain control, you can look toward the future with optimism and set better goals for your life as well.
For ideas on how to set better goals, check out this great resource:
How To Set Better Goals Using Science
Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!
Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework that will help you achieve your biggest goals.
Learned Helplessness FAQs
The causes of learned helplessness include prolonged exposure to traumatic events and stress perceived as uncontrollable. Those who have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect, or poverty are more at risk of symptoms of learned helplessness than others.
The difference between learned helplessness and hopelessness comes down to your perception of how you perceive yourself as being able to address the situation. According to the CDC, the feeling of hopelessness is about perceiving that nothing can be done about a problem (regardless of what you might be able to do about it).
Whereas the feeling of helplessness is about perceiving that there is nothing you can personally do to address or change a situation—hopelessness is often correlated with feeling powerless, without agency or control.
In this context, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can be felt at the same time.
You can break away from a mindset of learned helplessness with activities that give you a sense of control and agency. Activities might include forming new self-care habits, starting an enjoyable hobby to de-stress, acts of kindness, taking care of a pet or plant, creating boundaries, developing healthy connections, and getting out of your comfort zone.
Since learned helplessness often leads to depression, seeing a counselor is also highly recommended.
The symptoms of learned helplessness look much like depression, excluding suicidal thoughts. The symptoms include sad mood, loss of interest, weight loss, sleep problems, feelings of worthlessness, poor concentration, stress, feelings of passivity, lack of motivation, etc.
Learned Helplessness Takeaways
To summarize, take note of these helpful tips to help you overcome learned helplessness:
- Play a winnable game. Play a game you’re good at winning to give you a sense of accomplishment and agency.
- Take care of yourself. Start with creating daily habits of self-care, like making your bed.
- De-stress with activities you enjoy. Avoid prolonged exposure to stress with a fun activity that gets you out of your element.
- Do something kind for someone else. Participating in an act of kindness helps reframe your brain and gives you a sense of agency.
- Create boundaries. Unhealthy relationships are often at the root of learned helplessness.
- Form healthy connections. Spend time with people who bring out the best of you.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Methods like rejection therapy help you overcome your fears and ask for help.
- Take care of an animal or plant. Taking care of something enables you to move from passive to active.
- Hit the reset button. Maybe it’s time to reinvent yourself!
For more helpful resources, check out our article on lessons from a study on happiness.