September 12, 2022

Learned Helplessness

Elena Kao

What is learned helplessness? Why are some people more likely to develop learned helplessness than others? What are the signs we should pay attention to? Are there ways to overcome it? This mental illness can cause serious harm if the individual is left alone and not cared for. Therefore, people should pay attention to their thoughts and their loved ones, so they will be able to get help or help others as soon as possible.

Learned helplessness occurs when a person is continuously facing negative events and being placed in situations they think are out of their control. Eventually, this person will lose hope, motivation, and the will to fight. In other words, after failing several times to change the unwanted situation, the individual has “learned” that they are helpless in that situation and will stop trying to change it even when they have the ability to do so. For example, if a woman is repeatedly being abused by her husband, and she tried to escape several times but failed. She will, eventually, stop trying and believe that she will never be able to break free even when she knows that there are people and programs out there where she can get help from.

Not all individuals are equally likely to develop learned helplessness, but most people can be sorted into two different groups by their explanatory style, and it is the explanatory style they have that determines their likelihoods of developing learned helplessness. Explanatory style is defined as how an individual perceives and explains the events that happen to them. When facing negative events, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to believe that the events are unavoidable and are caused by their shortcomings. On the other hand, individuals with an optimistic explanatory style are more likely to think that the unwanted situations are temporary and attribute the cause of the event to other people or other factors. With that said, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to have a greater chance of developing learned helplessness than individuals with an optimistic explanatory style.


Professor Seligman, one of the psychologists credited with defining learned helplessness, pointed out three main features in individuals with learned helplessness:

1. Being passive or having a lack of normally expected response when facing traumatic events

2. Having difficulty learning that they can intervene or control trauma

3. Stress level increases

It is important to help individuals with learned helplessness to overcome it and become hopeful again. There are a handful of ways to do so, but we are only going to talk about a few of them here:

1. Seek and receive support and encouragement

The individual can go to their family, friends, or social workers to talk about their problems. By doing this, the individual will be able to learn how the events can be perceived differently.

2. Explore the cause or origin of learned helplessness

A problem can only be solved after the cause is identified. After knowing what led to the development of learned helplessness in the individual, the individual themselves have an idea as to what they should focus on when trying to overcome this mental illness. And other people who are there for them will get a general idea of how they can help.

3. Identify the negative thoughts that contribute to learned helplessness

If individuals with learned helplessness can realize that their thoughts are harmful, they will be able to put in the effort to eliminate those negative thoughts. By doing this, the individuals can reduce stress and will be able to have a better sense of peace.

4. Identify behaviors that intensify learned helplessness

This is similar to the previous point; the individual can only reduce those harmful behaviors if they can identify those as detrimental behaviors that reinforce this mental illness.


“LearnedHelplessness: Examples, Symptoms, and Treatment.” Medical News Today,MediLexicon International,

“LearnedHelplessness.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers,


Bio: Elena Kao studies at the University of California - Irvine, pursuing a Bachelor's degree Psychology. She is currently working as a Psychology intern at Thaddeus Resources Center for the AGAPE House. At school, she is also a research assistant in the Infants, Children, & Families lab.