Explained in 1965 by Martin Seligman, learned helplessness is characterized by feeling unable to alter outcomes despite taking action to do so. Though Seligman’s research involved dogs, continuing studies related learned helplessness to human behavior.

Repeated exposure to a negative experience or trauma that results in the belief that the situation will not change no matter what you do.

Learned Helplessness in Human Behavior

Understanding learned helpless in a human context requires the understanding of attribution, or where we place the blame for unsuccessful results.

Global attribution – believed to be true across many situations

Internal attribution – believed to be true because of an internal condition

Situational attribution – believed to be true because of a particular condition

People who attribute their failures globally have a higher risk factor for depression. “I fail at relationships because I am unlovable,” as opposed to, “I failed at this relationship because it was the wrong one for me,” which is a situational attribution.

Trauma and Learned Helplessness

The brain’s reaction to trauma and stress releases powerful neurochemicals resulting in flight, fight or freeze responses. Conditioning through exposure to trauma results in an increased sense of helplessness.

In abusive relationships, whether verbal, psychological, or physical, abuse is about power and control. When the victim experiences trauma repeatedly at the hand of their abuser, the brain responds with flight, fight, or freeze and learns helplessness as the hope of an improved situation disappears.

Many people ask why abuse victims wait to come forward and turn the tables toward victim shaming. If you have been following the #metoo movement on social media, vitriolic comments illustrate a widespread lack of understanding regarding the power and control abusers have over their victims. Threats of retribution and shame surrounding abuse keep people silent. Resigning themselves to a situation over which they have no control appears as the only option.

Studies show the average time it takes for sexually abused children (USA) to come forward takes 12-25 years, depending on the age of the victim. This, of course, excludes those who never report.

Learned helplessness is catalyzed by government agencies that fail – child services, police response, etc.

Fortunately, neuroplasticity makes it possible for people to regain their power and reduce helplessness. This often requires the guidance of a therapist skilled in trauma resolution to obtain the proper tools and exercises to move through traumatic experiences and begin healing.

Join us to learn more from Diane Poole Heller, PhD, and our experts leading the Therapy Mastermind Circle.