Link Between Learned Helplessness and Mental Illness

Author Tracy Smith
July 21, 2019

Some of the best scientific discoveries seem to happen by accident.  Penicillin, the microwave, and the inkjet printer are examples of some serendipitous discoveries.  The psychological concept of learned helplessness was another accidental discovery.  Psychologists, Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, were originally studying the relationship between classical conditioning and animal behavior when they accidentally discovered that dogs exhibited helpless behavior after receiving a series of electrical shocks.  Following this experience, they discovered that when the dogs were given a simple means of escape, they made no attempt to avoid further shocks. 

feeling helpless

In addition to several types of animals, the concept of learned helplessness also applies to people.  Learned helplessness commonly develops in childhood when youth are surrounded by inattentive or unfeeling caregivers.  Children begin to feel like nobody is there to help them and often conclude that nothing can be done to help their situations.  Continued negative experiences into adulthood tend to foster and solidify these negative feelings.

Learned helplessness does not occur in all individuals, as some appear to develop this phenomenon while others do not.  Personality characteristics seem to offer some explanation, as those with a negative outlook on the world seem to be more susceptible to learned helplessness.  People who view misfortune and inopportune events as inevitable tend to assume personal responsibility for their occurrence, which leads to greater levels of learned helplessness.  Hereditary, psychological, and environmental factors can also play a part in the development of learned helplessness behaviors.  Children who reside with parents who demonstrate learned helplessness are more likely to experience and display learned helplessness themselves.

Some general symptoms of learned helplessness include low self esteem, a lack of confidence, frustration, and low levels of motivation.  Other symptoms include a tendency to procrastinate, exerting little effort, giving up quickly, and failing to reach out for help.

A linkage has been found between learned helplessness and various mental health conditions.  Learned helplessness has been linked to depression, stress, phobias, and anxiety and has been found to have an impact on the onset, intensity, and duration of various disorders.  Individuals who experience persistent and enduring depression and anxiety will sometimes abandon efforts to alleviate their symptoms because they view their fate as inescapable and everlasting.  Increased stress levels can also have a negative impact on a person’s motivation to take care of their general health and well being.

People feel as if nothing can be done to address their symptoms and feelings, which often results in them failing to seek treatment.  This then contributes to greater feelings of helplessness and tends to exacerbate their symptoms.  People develop the cognitive viewpoint that they are not in control of their situation, that nothing will change this fact, and then stop bothering to even try.  Negative feelings in one area of a person’s life can potentially blur into other areas of their life, leading to the belief that they cannot do anything right.  This viewpoint can then contribute to a lack of motivation in several areas of one’s life.

Learned helplessness can be treated with psychotherapy and medication, if clinically warranted.  Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of treatment where an individual learns how to alter their thoughts to change negative feelings and behaviors.  People learn how to change thoughts of learned helplessness by replacing them with more positive thoughts.    

It is interesting to consider if some accidental scientific and medical discoveries developed from learned helplessness behaviors.  At one point or another, perhaps researchers and scientists became frustrated and felt like giving up.  Maybe they began to believe that they were going to be unsuccessful in their research and experimentation.  Just maybe, as they proceeded to throw in the proverbial towel, they hit on something amazing and accidentally came across something wonderful.

Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.

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