Dr. Teresa Meehan

"Language is the voice of the mind. It is a reflection of the energy we hold in our consciousness and emerges as our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors."

Solutions for Overcoming Learned Helplessness

– Posted in: Mental Wellness
Victim of learned helplessness

The feeling of helplessness or being out of control in any situation is uncomfortable and can cause secondary feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. If such feelings continue to occur in response to any adverse environment, people sometimes develop a condition known as learned helplessness.  In this article, I explain what learned helplessness is, and I provide solutions for overcoming learned helplessness so you or a loved one can lead a happier, more productive life.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Psychologists Martin E.P. Seligman and Steven F. Maier observed the learned helplessness behavior while conducting a study on dogs they conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. After the dogs were conditioned, they were placed in a shuttle box that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to the conditioning part of the experiment made no attempts to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over a low barrier.

Learned Helplessness -seligman dogsAfter observing this amazing behavior in the dogs, Seligman began to extend his research to behaviors in other animals as well as in humans. What he found is that some people react in the same way under repeated and difficult situations where there is a perceived lack of control. Like animals, some people simply give up in the face of adversity, or when they feel certain there is nothing they can do to change things or their outcomes.

Examples of Learned Helplessness in People Learned helplessness is a fairly common behavior seen in abusive relationships. The abused individual believes that they are powerless to change their lives, and like the dogs, they make no attempt to remove themselves from the electricity. Children often show signs of learned helplessness in school. An often-used example refers to a child who performs poorly on math tests and assignments may begin to feel that nothing he does will have any effect on his math performance. If no type of intervention occurs, the child’s feeling of helplessness faced with any type of math-related task will carry over into adulthood.

Learned Helplessness and Mental Illnesses

Learned helplessness has often been associated with several different psychological disorders. Depression, anxiety and certain phobias are the most common. When people feel a lack of control over their feelings and emotions, sometimes they quit trying to be anything different than depressed or anxious.

Learned helplessness is dangerous in mental illness because it implies that the disease has control over the individual. Unfortunately, the individual is also controlled by the medication being used to treat the disease and is terrified of not having it. In some cases, the feeling of helplessness can lead to hopelessness, which can then lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Why Some People Develop Learned Helpless and Not Others

We can’t say that learned helplessness is always the result of feeling out of control. There are some undeniable patterns, including the fact the people suffering from depression, anxiety of bi-polar disorder are more prone than others to develop the condition. But even among people with mental illness, learned helplessness does not occur in all people across the board.

One explanation for the difference has been relegated to differences in personality. Specifically, people who are more pessimistic by nature tend to think about things in a more negative light. Not only do pessimists often castastrophize events, they may make one negative event into something that is all encompassing. For instance, someone who performs poorly on one thing may come to believe they are globally incompetent. Whereas an optimistic person might believe that other people or circumstances caused the problem. Their focus on the event is fleeting and they soon move on to other things.

Solutions for Overcoming Learned Helplessness

When it comes to learned helplessness, the most important factor seems to be control. Humans need to feel they have some level of control over their lives. When someone feels as though they have no control, the feeling comes from a perception and perceptions are formed as a result of sensory input from our experiences in the world. This helps to explain, in part, why no two people, who might have similar experiences, will always have the same outcome. The perception of control is based on multiple factors and multiple experiences. It is not necessarily determined by level of traumatic experience. In other words, someone who has experienced severe trauma may actually perceive themselves to have more control over a situation than someone who has experienced relatively less trauma.

The good news is that because the feelings and behaviors associated with learned helplessness are the result of negative perceptions, they can be changed. Negative thinking may bring negative results because your thinking dictates who you are and where you’ll go. Changing perceptions involves changing thinking, but not just from negative to positive. It also requires changing the response to a stimulus from the one you have already learned (learned helplessness) to something positive by associating it with a new response.

Let me must add as a disclaimer here that I’m not implying learned helplessness is easily cured by changing perceptions. Of course, environmental situations also play a huge role and there are instances in which the subject really does have little or no control. Regardless, changing perceptions can help even that individual with coping skills in the worse of situations.


There are some powerful NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) techniques that can help facilitate the development of new perceptions.

Reframing was one of the first NLP techniques developed and is still quite useful today. Part of its power comes from the fact that reframing can be performed with language alone. With reframing, you are training the part of the mind that causes a behavior (or response) to one that is more appropriate. Reframing works best when someone is doing it with the person who has acquired learned helplessness.

Steps of NLP Reframing (Source: Planet NLP)

  • Identify the unwanted behavior. In the case of learned helplessness, the unwanted behavior is the immediate negative response to your perceived lack of control.
  • Initiate communication with the ‘part’ of the mind that is causing the behavior.
  • Ask the ‘part’ to identify what the positive outcome of the behavior is (every behavior should have a positive outcome)
  • Ask the ‘part’ to find several other ways to achieve the same outcome
  • Gain the ‘parts’ agreement to try out the other behaviors to find a more useful behavior.

As you can see, this technique would be difficult to do on yourself. Someone slightly skilled in language use could easily create the context you need to reframe the negative response to a positive outcome. NLP Belief Change Since learned helplessness is a limiting belief about oneself; changing the belief can eliminate the limiting belief. One NLP technique that is used in this context is called the Belief Change technique.

NLP 6 step reframing procedure

Changing Beliefs

Steps for Belief Change- (Source: The Salad Blog)

  • Identify a limiting belief you’d like to change. (E.g., I’ll always be overweight; I don’t ever have enough money, I can’t be happy because I have a mental illness). These beliefs are ‘negative affirmations’ that people with limiting beliefs reinforce on a constant basis every time they pop into their mind.
  • Construct a positive affirmation using the following form: I am xxxxx.

The keys to creating powerful affirmations are as follows:

  1. Make them positive (What you want, not what you don’t want)
  2. Make them identify-based (‘I’)
  3. Make them present-tense (‘I am… ‘)
  4. Make them emotionally powerful
  • Say your new affirmation. Notice what thoughts and feelings are triggered and accept them. (The first time you say your new affirmation it will not seem ‘true’ to you. It is likely you’ll have certain sensations and thoughts as a result, so be especially aware of any pictures that pop into your head, voices in your head, and feelings in your body. Often it is the feelings that keep an old belief in place, resisting the new one.)
  • Reinforce your new belief by repeating your affirmation daily, allowing yourself to feel how you’ll feel when it’s true, and by noticing proof that supports it.

These strategies are not miracles that change feelings or beliefs with a swish of a magic wand. Rather, they are approaches to behavior change that require time and consistency. If time and consistency are applied, the desired change will occur.


While learned helplessness is a behavioral response to certain perceptions we form about the world we live in, it is not a terminal illness. Learned helplessness is a behavioral response that can be altered by changing perceptions from old negative thought patterns to new positive affirmations. More importantly, however, changing perceptions through language can help an individual move from the victim role (helpless) to someone who is more empowered through their choice of thoughts.

[Note: This article was originally published on my previous blog Life Coach Plus on September 19, 2012. It has been republished here with a few minor updates.]

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