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Solutions for Overcoming 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.

{ 22 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

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