≡ Menu

Solutions for Overcoming Learned Helplessness

CHECK OUT MY NEW BLOG- Miracle Minded Wellness and see an update on Learned Helplessness


The feeling of helplessness or out of control in any situation in uncomfortable and can cause secondary feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. If such feelings continue to occur in response to any adverse environment, people often 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 can lead a happier, more productive life.

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.

After 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, he 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 the 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. The truth is that there is no such thing as reality, only perceptions.

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) by associating it with a new response.

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

1. Reframing- 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) the client doesn’t like to one that is more appropriate. Reframing works best when someone is doing it with the person who has 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 client 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.

2. NLP Belief Change- Since learned helplessness is a limiting belief about oneself; changing the belief can eliminate it. One NLP technique that is used is called the Belief Change technique.

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’
• Construct a positive affirmation using the following form: I am xxxxx.

The keys to creating powerful affirmations are as follows:
Make them positive (What you want, not what you don’t want)
Make them identify-based (‘I’)
Make them present-tense (‘I am…’)
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 that 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.


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 changed through the use of NLP techniques that work toward changing perceptions from old negative thought patterns to new positive affirmations.

CHECK OUT MY NEW BLOG- Miracle Minded Wellness and see an update on Learned Helplessness


{ 41 comments… add one }
  • Dee March 8, 2013, 1:04 am


  • Wendi October 14, 2013, 5:02 am

    Finally a diagnosis that explains all the dysfunction I’ve made of my life. Before even finishing this article I emailed my therapist for her recommended treatment course. This problem has made me leech everyone I love of every drop of caring they can possible give. Then, when that well runs dry, I blame them for taking away the supply. Then, I turn away because they have nothing to give me, and I look for someone who does. I want to have my own well to draw from. I want to love myself enough that I can feel I am worthy of taking care of. Of making the effort to take care of myself. I don’t see that road. But I want to. Thank you for telling me that it exists.

    • Teresa Meehan June 24, 2014, 1:32 am

      Wendi- Thank you so much for the honest you shared in your post. Awareness is at least half the battle. I hope you were able to find an effective treatment approach.

      • Edna January 23, 2015, 12:59 pm

        wow. I can totally relate to Wendi’s case, that has my case EXACTLY and thought there was really no solution. But there is. This is enlightening. Thank you Teresa for the article, and for giving me hope!

    • Random July 18, 2015, 10:14 pm

      It is indeed a nasty ‘thought programming’.

      My personal experience has been of many previously ordinary gung-ho tasks being turned into at best ‘why bother’ and at worst a ‘frozen’ rabbit in headlights type anxiety with a physically almost nauseating feeling accompanying the thought of doing them.

      The result of some prolonged painful experiences. There is no doubt some crossover with OCD type behaviour and PTS also.

      Essentially it seems basically anxiety related, though that can lead to and form part of depression… a lot of viscious circles with the mind. If it were more physically obvious it would be akin to ‘slipped on a banana skin, reached out for support which broke off in my hand, so the fell through some glass, and ended up bloodied and feeling very much alone and helpless. Tried to get up but stepped on the broken glass and fell over again’ resulting in a fear of bananas, support mechanisms, glass and total lack of faith then one’s ability to ‘get out’ of similar situations. If bananas (alone) were previously say a main food source and considered tasty… that’s a real problem!

      I have come round a lot from it with time (several years) but not back to 100% yet. I wish anyone reading the article and realising they have been suffering from this all the very best… it can be quite debilitating.

    • renee January 13, 2016, 2:30 pm

      Wendi, i could have written your post. Are you still out there? what’s helping for you and are you better? i need help with this desperately. Can i exchange e’s with you and maybe learn and improve myself? Life feels very empty and miserable because of this condition and i want to get better so badly. Renee

  • Daye January 9, 2014, 4:49 pm

    Thank you. The one downside to the condition is the resistance one runs into when trying to help someone else see. In retrospect, my child has had this mindset since he was young. Even then I tried to get him to think differently about life and always…the resistance. Now at 37, it’s worse than ever.

  • Jillian January 16, 2014, 5:28 pm

    It is my husband who suffers from learned helplessness. Living with depression and abxiety, panic attacks and the seizures :( it has gone on for so long with little help from NHS ecxept medication which has made it all spiral out of control to the point of helplessness and suicidal thoughts. We can’t change our situation of financial problems because of his illness. All very sad in an uncaring world.

  • Jane De Vries April 3, 2014, 7:35 am

    This article was useful and practical. Thank you. I do however disagree with your comment that reads, “there is no such thing as reality, only one’s perception.”
    I’m wanting to try and understand, not to take your statement out of context. Most individuals that experience “learned helplessness” were probably exposed to horrific abusive environments, such as myself. That was my reality, but I believe I can change it, not easily, and not overnight. I believe most of this LH has trauma attached to it, now we’re talking about a more complex issue of damages from reality. I agree my perceptions will change, only as I do the hard, necessary work.

    • Teresa Meehan June 24, 2014, 1:36 am

      Jane- I agree the past traumas often are the catalysts for shaping our perceptions of reality. Fortunately perceptions can be changed with the right treatment approach. Once you learn how perceptions are formed, that is, the brain processes involved, you’ll find they can be changed and it doesn’t necessarily require years of hard work or reliving the trauma. I wish you the best.

    • luke December 3, 2014, 11:48 am

      I agree with the author.
      The only reality is one’s perceptions.
      Came upon this article while meditating on the “reality” of my nephew’s condition. Learned helplessness finally emerged as my diagnosis.
      Teresa, your approach follows the paradigm I worked out with my Professor in grad school, for a practical course of emotional and mental healing that makes the therapist and the client partners in healing.

      • Teresa Meehan December 18, 2014, 3:33 am

        Sounds fascinating, Luke. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Rujuta July 1, 2014, 7:43 am

    Thank you very much.I never knew that learned helplessness was a recognised disorder. Now I see that it isn’t just my wrong belief that I have learned helplessness; but the disorder actually exists and the most important thing is that there is a solution to it.Thank you for making us aware.

    • Teresa Meehan July 2, 2014, 12:37 am

      Rujuta- Thank you for your comment. Learned helplessness is a behavior that can be changed through awareness. It won’t be easy, but you’ve started down the path to becoming an emotionally healthier person. Congratulations!

  • Susan September 16, 2014, 3:55 pm

    Can you point me toward more articles and information about helping others with the sx and what to do about helping them to admit they have a problem and to seek treatment?

    • Teresa Meehan October 5, 2014, 6:02 pm

      There’s a great book written by Martin Seligman, the man who originally identified the process of learned helplessness. It’s called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Life and Your Mind. Of course, as with most problems, the person with the issue has to be willing to acknowledge there is a problem so that they can begin to do something about it. Best wishes!

      • W November 17, 2015, 11:22 pm

        Omg thank you so much for this article and this book recommendation, I have just purchased it on iTunes books. This is exactly what I needed. Funny, last week a friend of mine mentioned it regarding his fear of developing it and I told him not to worry, but even though I didn’t know what it was, my intuition made me feel uncomfortable as if it were something I should look into. Regardless, the word kept coming up today, I looked it up, and there it was, the enormous source of many if not almost every one of my problems. I can see it all around me. Bruce Lipton wrote an amazing book on how cells can change based on their environment and took it a step further, like Seligman, to see if it could explain human behaviour, and it can, hence also the old cliche of you are the total of the 5 people you hang out most with, or, show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you’ll become, etc. Read his book, coupled with another called Release Your Brakes, and with these 3 may it start a powerful journey as it has with me. It has most definitely not been easy, but the more I stay on track, the more these books appear out of nowhere. Thank you for the value you have given me today. I hope that I can repay this value with these books I have mentioned as well. Happy healing to you all.

  • Joyce September 26, 2014, 5:42 pm

    Thank you for this article. Very interesting. I tried to sign up for the Seminars, but got an error message back, after I gave my name and email. I would be interesting in knowing more about the seminars and in receiving more literature like this article.

    • Teresa Meehan October 5, 2014, 6:04 pm

      Thank you, Joyce. The Seminars are still a work in progress. If you subscribe to my website, you’ll receive notification by email as soon as the information becomes available.

  • Krish October 5, 2014, 2:39 pm

    I have an issue with excessive gratfefulness. It has a tendency to make me seem ungrateful. I seem to be seen to be seeking control in most situations. If I think about why this is I can create some satisfactory conclusions but one of the side problems is a tendency to construct realities through rethinking. Now I’ve lost my family and I’m left in a house that was a home. I have no job and I’ve run out of money so there is a matter of time before perceptions of reality clash. This has come about through the perception that I am blessed with enough and will therefore survive.

    The reason for making a comment is to do with receiving reassurance or the hope of it at least – ‘yes that’s an interesting point well made’ – that too is a concern. Is it possible that I have a really pernicious command that is something along the lines of ‘you’re okay’ or ‘you’re lucky’. If it was told to me by a mother who herself was not really coping it wouldn’t ring true. It might seem to be a healthy prompt but it’s actually a form of cupboard love – ‘you’re okay, look how well you’re looked after’. As a result I feel really resentful towards my mother though I am aware of her failings and should be able to walk away mentally. Somehow I’ve tied my own sense of being okay to her perception and not to mine so that okay is eating and sleeping well but not having the inner resources to stand up for yourself. So as the means for eating dissipate only then does the command show itself as poorly constructed.

    I’d really like a reply to this. I’m not sure how clear it is but writing it down has felt helpful.

    I really like the picture of the distressed dog. I feel for him.

    • Teresa Meehan October 5, 2014, 7:30 pm

      Dear Krishna- Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my article. It’s evident that you have given this subject, and others, a great deal of thought. I suspect we could get into a very interesting dialog about the nature of reality, perceptions, consciousness and how to create joy in our lives. I DO think you made some interesting points but I’m unsure if you’re asking for feedback, and if so, about what specifically, or if you wanted to add to the discussion through your process of reflection. Either way, I’m happy to chime in. As I was reading your message, a book came to mind that you might find of interest. It’s called “Breaking the Habit of Being You” by Dr. Joe Dispenza. He combines the fields of quantum physics, neuroscience, brain chemistry, biology and genetics and provides step-by-step instructions for making measurable changes in any area of your life. In my humble opinion, he does an amazing job of bridging the gap between science and spirituality and demonstrates how real happiness is a state of being that resides within you and doesn’t relying on or react to external factors that may either affirm or deny who you think you really are.

      I wish you all the best.

  • DG December 15, 2014, 3:59 pm

    good article. Learned helplessness also occurs in many addicts. In fact, pharmacological approaches are starting to arise on possibly coming up with a therapeutic agent, that cold decrease symptoms such as depression, stress and dysphoria amongst people with severe learned helplessness. It is theorized, that one possible link to stress is from an opioid receptor called the kappa. Buprenorphine, a partial mu agonist with kappa antagonistic properties, while used at this time only for those with opiate addictions, has been studies in low dosages to aid with alleviationg dysphoria stress related depression. If scientists can come up with an agent that lacks the opiate effect that buprenorphine has, yet possess kappa antagonistic ones, this could be huge. Along with medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, many treatment resistant depressive states especially ones induced by severe PTSD, along with addiction and those who developed learned helplessness from abusive past or present relationships could help those suffering.

    • Teresa Meehan December 18, 2014, 3:35 am

      Interesting, Dan. I’m not surprised there is a push for a pharmacological approach. I’ll leave my thoughts on that to another article. I’ll definitely look at the research you suggest.

  • anon December 27, 2014, 3:09 pm

    Thank you for this. This construct is completely ruining my life. I can see where I learned it, not just in childhood and the family home, but eventual mental illness starting when I was 13 reinforced it. For instance, I was top of the year at school and felt confident that I had the power and potential to succeed in life, but my eating disorders took away from my energy and I did not stay top of the year. I eventually had to struggle to get into a university, where I succeeded once again, became top of the year, but I was a workaholic and burned out, and slowly lost everything (a year after graduating I was homeless). I picked myself back up and tried again, this time being talent scouted for my chosen (very competitive) career, but by now I had lost confidence, and even after being offered opportunities I turned them down believing it would be irresponsible to try and that others would tell me “I told you so” when I fell apart or failed again. “Why can’t you just settle down and have children instead of trying to have a career?” is what I got from parents, when to me that sounded like a nightmare.

    I’ve kept myself trapped in this place and I’m so ashamed of my lack of success (compared with what I could have had, in reality I have a different career and am very successful at that, but I don’t want it. It’s someone else’s career, it’s not for me.) People treat me like I’m a child and it makes me furious. I say “I want this” and they scold me and say “well, why aren’t you doing it? You’re doing the wrong things. Why don’t you do this?” and although I feel they should f*ck off and treat me like an equal instead of talk down to me, I’m also frustrated that I know everything they say is right. This is a horrible feeling, I feel like a caged animal and now that so many years have passed, I feel like even if I dig myself out of this hole I will still have to go out shame-faced and explain why I was too stupid to do it earlier.

    • Teresa Meehan December 31, 2014, 2:36 am

      Wow! Thank you for such deep sharing. I know it’s not a consolation, but you now know you certainly aren’t alone in this cycle. Hopefully you picked up a few tips to help you get out. Recognition is half the battle. Regardless of who you become, what you accomplish in life and how you define success, the most important thing is that you find happiness, which tend to live in the present moment, not in the what ifs we put ourselves through.

    • Kiki January 11, 2016, 12:03 am

      I’m also trying to climb out of learned helplessness and I’m 31. I grew up with a verbally/emotionally abusive mother and stepfather who were terrified that if I had self-confidence they might not be able to control me and I might choose my own profession, lifestyle, partner, spiritual beliefs, etc.

      I was incredibly ambitious and entrepreneurial as a kid, and even up till high school. My teachers told my parents every year of primary school that based on my test scores I could skip a grade and/or take advanced courses, and in high school I wanted to take community college courses because I was bored and always finished assignments and got straight A’s with minimal effort and I wanted to challenge myself academically. By the time I got to college, I was so used to achieving everything without actually putting in any work, that when a situation came up where I *would* have to challenge myself, I thought I couldn’t do it. It’s like I adopted the mentality that “hard work/challenge = impossible” so I just wouldn’t attempt anything that I couldn’t do without making an effort.

      Anytime I wanted to do something “different”, my parents would simply tell me I couldn’t. Even worse, they made sure to make me feel incredibly stupid for even having goals and thinking that I could be successful.

      Same with work – when I was a kid I was always coming up with ideas to make money without doing the usual retail /fast food nonsense. Teaching piano and flute lessons, doing yard work /mowing lawns /shoveling snow /cleaning houses in the neighborhood, making and selling baked goods, etc. Every time I wanted to be ambitious and start something, my parents would find a reason to not let me, and would insist the only way to work was for someone else, doing minimum-wage jobs that again required no effort or critical thinking or ambition. Now as an adult I hate that passive mentality and even more, I hate that I adopted that mentality and it’s so ingrained in me idk how to get back to who I was before I was conditioned. I’m still an entrepreneur at heart and I have all kinds of ideas and I’m excited about making it work – but I have all this fear because it’s so ingrained in me the conditioning from my parents: “you can’t make money on your own”, “you’ll just fail (and if you fail you’ll be a disappointment and and embarrassment)”, “you’re not good enough to be a professional artist”, “making a living doing what you love is a myth”, etc.

      I hate that I wasted most of my 20’s doing exactly what my parents wanted for me – a career that I hate, because I believed I couldn’t succeed at anything else. I want to turn things around and I’m already angry at myself for wasting all that time.

  • Motivation May 8, 2015, 4:56 pm

    For these people it is not a matter of motivation bbut rather inspiration. Thiis means your employees will
    be more willing to grow with your company. You only have
    to commit to a week, but you may end up wanting too continue.

  • Bhavana August 7, 2015, 9:23 am

    I was very good at studies throughout.. always a topper. After my graduation even though I had a job in hand, I was not interested in that. After failure in two interviews I was very much depressed and developed a phobia of interviews as they were the first time I faced rejection. Fortunately I got a job in my 3rd interview. Though I was doing well in my job I became very sensitive.. for even slightest things I will become irritated and feel like crying. Often I will be crying alone for hours without knowing proper reason. From the past 6 months this is my situation. Moreover I am working in a remote location with no friends and I often want to run away from here. I don’t know why I have become like this..pls help me. Should I consult a doctor??

    • Teresa Meehan August 10, 2015, 11:52 pm

      The symptoms you are describing are very typical of depression. I would strongly suggest you consult with your primary care physician, a mental health counselor, or other licensed professional as soon as possible to get some help. You don’t have to feel this way and there are numerous treatment options available.

  • M. Brinson August 13, 2015, 2:00 am

    Usually the use of an acronym (like NLP) is preceeded by the full term. If anyone else cares to know, NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

  • amazon November 2, 2015, 8:42 pm

    You have made some decent poibts there. I
    checked on the internet for more info about the issue and found most individuals will go along
    with your views oon this site.

  • Morgan Angel November 20, 2015, 3:14 pm

    This is a great article, and it is wonderful so many people are affected positively. I noticed several people stating they were happy to have “found a diagnosis” and I wanted to clarify that learned helplessness is not a disorder or a diagnosis. Learned helplessness is a way we learn to perceive, and make sense of, the world. Discovering you have a tendency to think of things as a never ending pattern of defeat is a human insight, not a disorder. When people walk away thinking they have a “disorder” it may contribute to another skewed construct.

  • Leslie Rodriguez December 15, 2015, 7:04 pm

    I thank you for your very informative posts..However there is one statement that I find very hard to accept. You seem to imply that a certain type of person(namely a pessimist) suffers from learned helplessness more than others. I have to ask you to consider for a minute the case of my Father. He was a Narcissist as an adult and he is in counseling. He revealed to me a few years ago that his Father would blame him and verbally abuse him even when he was doing his best. The lesson he learned very well was that if even his best was not good enough there was no way he was going to be accepted when he made a mistake. He recalls being blamed for not being able to fix farm equipment even when the information that he needed to perform the job was not available to him. He was trying. He was attempting with all of his young heart and being as OPTIMISTIC about it as he possibly could be. However, his abusive Father was setting him up for failure.No amount of optimism was going to change the fact that my father was not a professional mechanic. He was just a young boy who tried with every last bit of his heart and soul to please a sadistically abusive Father. My Grandfather seemed to get pleasure out of demanding the impossible from his children and then punishing them when they could not perform. How then, when you consider my Fathers case, could you possibly separate learned helplessness from Pessimism. In my mind they will always be one and the same. It does not help people who are suffering from learned helplessness and who may also be suicidal, to them be labeled hopeless pessimists. This type of thinking conveniently absolves the oppressor of responsibility. My Grandfather left my Dad no choice and no hope My Dad had to finally give up hope that he would ever win his fathers approval. It was either give up or be destroyed emotionally. He was.. He became a Narcissist who was only able to feel the helpless rage of a child whenever his environment triggered it. That was the Father I lived with. I see and understand why now and I DO NOT BLAME VICTIMS FOR THE STATE OF LEARNED HELPLESSNESS!
    Leslie R,, an optimist!

    • Pablo February 1, 2016, 6:52 pm

      Your father giving up hopes of winning your grandfather’s approval is not helplessness to me. It is a realization of reality, such as non-athlete 30 year old man giving up hopes of competing in the Olimpic Games. However, if his sufferings had extended to give up hopes of getting anybody´s approval whatsoever, then that would be learned helplessness, which associates easily with learned pessimism.

  • Pablo January 14, 2016, 3:21 pm

    Is helplessness ALWAYS a biased perception of reality? Is there any documented case/study of real, technically based helplessness and how to adapt to it? During my divorce, my lawyer made such a mess with judicial paperwork and my ex-spouse got so angered that, five years later, after changing lawyers four times and after having consulted dozens, I come to grips that there is no way to end the trial, I will always depend on my ex spouse unpredictable goodwill to see my children, will have no say in their education/health/vacation related decisions, and my property will always be subject to embargo due to a retroactive debt in alimoney.

Leave a Comment