Learned Helplessness Theory - What Is It?

Thinking there's nothing you can do in the face of adverse situations is known as the learned helplessness theory. It's a psychological state of helplessness that can become disabling.
Learned Helplessness Theory - What Is It?
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by María Hoyos

Last update: 21 December, 2022

The learned helplessness theory explains that a person behaves passively because they’ve learned to do so. Thus, the person thinks they can’t do anything when confronted with the various kinds of adverse situations. Even though they could, in fact, overcome them.

This difficulty has to do with depression and other mental disorders that make a person reaffirm their belief that there’s no solution to their problems, despite the fact that their reality is different.

The learned helplessness theory

Learned helplessness is the result of generally uncontrolled negative or aversive stimuli that lead to apathy in a traumatized person.

Thus, stress doesn’t lead to despair, only the impossibility of controlling the motor that triggers it. This dynamic is often present in families with highly authoritarian parents, whose children end up accepting all kinds of abuse, even after they leave home for good. This is because they feel that trying to be in control is pointless.

This endurance of negative situations not only creates the inability for them to take initiative. In fact, many can’t even learn new behaviors. Thus, they operate in a state of demotivation and relaxation, and yet, they’re not at ease.

A sad woman.

The causes of learned helplessness theory

As the name implies, this is a learned condition. Thus, humans tend to carefully study the consequences of our actions, discarding behaviors that lead to negative consequences and embracing those that might lead to positive consequences.

Although this may seem like a good idea, it isn’t always the case. For example, when a child fails a math test and knows that they’ll be scolded at home, the punishment still won’t motivate them to pass future math tests. Instead, they’ll start looking for ways not to attend class and will believe they’re just not skilled in that subject.

If the situation persists, the child will enter a continuous loop of anxiety and sadness, which is closely related to depression.

How to address the symptoms of learned helplessness?

You must consult a specialist to try to control and cure this disorder. Only they can advise you about what happens to you and how you can address it. You must never self-diagnose yourself, no matter how obvious your symptoms may be.

  • Involve your loved ones. If you suspect that you or a loved one suffers from learned despair, don’t try to hide it. They may be the cause of your problem, meaning you’ll need joint therapy. But if they’re not, they’ll certainly support you.
  • Write down your emotions. You can keep a diary or simply write down notes on your cell phone about how you feel about specific situations. Rereading them can make you discern between a reasonable cause or other unreasonable causes of stress.
  • Take on challenges that you know are solvable. Given the uncertainty to which you can fall victim due to the uncontrollable consequences of some actions, consider pursuing the challenges you know you can solve. Although it may sound ridiculous, this will boost your self-esteem and initiative.
  • Always ask yourself three things about a problem. How can you avoid it? What have you learned from this situation? Are there other solutions you haven’t considered?
  • When facing a problem that’s already done and dusted, it might help you to imagine a scenario in which it isn’t over yet. This way, you’ll be able to consider its possible solutions without stressing out about it.
  • Think of yourself. Oftentimes, people with learned helplessness disconnect from and neglect themselves. They live their lives thinking about the consequences of their actions and trying to please others. It’s important to reflect on yourself and set some time apart for yourself.
A woman enjoying the sun.

You must be patient

Learned helplessness can be cured. Although it seems complex and impossible, you can always ask for help. Be it from a professional, a family member, or a friend, know that you’re not alone.

You must be patient. Understand that learned behavior, probably from childhood, isn’t easy to cope with and overcome. Thus, don’t be unfair to yourself and take your time with it.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.