When something bad happens in life, people like to believe that we would do anything to change the situation and be better. But when people feel they have no control over what happens, then they can give up and accept what happens, even if it is bad … and that is called, learned helplessness.

What is it

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and will behave as if it is totally unable to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape present themselves, this learned helplessness will prevent any action … But this doesn’t just happen in animals, in people as well.

When people feel they have no control over their situation, they can start to behave helplessly. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change … without having the will to change things for the better, even though they have enough tools to do so.

The helplessness learned in people

Read this example to understand learned helplessness in people: a child who fails math tests will begin to feel that nothing he does will improve his performance in this school area. When faced with math-related tasks, you will feel helpless.

Learned helplessness has also been associated with several different psychological disorders. Depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness can be exacerbated by learned helplessness.

For example, a woman who feels shy in social situations may begin to feel that there is nothing she can do to overcome her symptoms. This feeling that her symptoms are out of her direct control can lead her to stop trying to get involved in social situations, making her shyness even more pronounced … and isolating herself causing her feelings of sadness and learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness can be generalized in many settings and situations in daily life. A student who experiences helpless learning from math class will not necessarily experience that same helplessness when faced with real-world calculations. In other cases, people may experience learned helplessness that is generalized in a wide variety of situations.

Why some yes and others no

So what explains why some people develop learned helplessness and others don’t? Why is it specific to some situations but more global in others? Explanatory styles have a determining role in this. The characteristic style of each person to explain what happens helps to determine whether or not they will have learned helplessness in their lives.

A pessimistic explanatory style is associated with a higher probability of experiencing learned helplessness. People with this explanatory style tend to view negative events as inescapable and unavoidable and tend to take personal responsibility for such negative events.

In children it also occurs

Learned helplessness also occurs in children, in fact, it originates in childhood. Caregivers who do not respond well to their children’s needs will contribute to these feelings. This learned helplessness can start too early in life. Children raised in institutionalized settings, for example, often show symptoms of helplessness even during infancy.

When children need help, but no one helps them, they can be left feeling that nothing they do will change their situation. Repeated experiences that reinforce these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can cause you to grow into adulthood, ultimately feeling that there is nothing you can do to change your problems … even if you could.


There are some characteristics of learned helplessness in children and adults that must be known in order to be alert and know what is happening and seek remedial measures as soon as possible:

    • Passivity
    • Poor motivation
    • Give up doing things better
    • Apathy or lack of effort
    • Time delay
    • Do not ask for help even if it is needed

Learned helplessness can also lead to anxiety, depression, or both. When children feel that they have had no control over past circumstances in their lives, they gain the expectation that future events will be just as uncontrollable. The same thing happens to adults. Because they believe that nothing they do will change the outcome of an event, children and adults are often left thinking that they shouldn’t even bother trying.

Learned helplessness in mental health

Learned helplessness is thought to contribute to feelings of anxiety and may influence the onset, severity, and persistence of conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). When you experience chronic anxiety, you may fail to find relief because feelings of anxiety seem unavoidable and intractable. Because of this, people who experience mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression , may reject medications or therapies that can help alleviate their symptoms.

As people age, learned helplessness can turn into a vicious cycle. When faced with problems such as anxiety or depression, people may feel that nothing can be done to alleviate these feelings. Then, people do not look for options that can help, which contributes to a greater feeling of helplessness and anxiety.

Overcome learned helplessness

So what can people do to overcome learned helplessness? It can be successfully decreased, especially if the intervention occurs the sooner the better. Long-term learned helplessness can also be reduced, although it may require long-term effort. Therapy can be effective in reducing symptoms of learned helplessness.

The cognitive-behavioral therapy  (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that can be beneficial to overcome the thought and behavior patterns that contribute to learned helplessness. The goal of CBT is to help patients identify negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of learned helplessness and then replace these thoughts with more optimistic and rational thoughts. This process often involves carefully analyzing what you are thinking, actively challenging these ideas, and disputing negative thought patterns. 

Elle Mcdonald

I am Elle Mcdonald Specializations in Psychology . Graduated in psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2000. Diploma of Advanced Studies in the Department of Personality, Evaluation and psychological treatments with excellent results.

First Level of Master in Clinical Psychology at the Center for Behavioral Therapists (recognized with a scientific-professional nature by the College of Psychologists)

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