Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is a feeling that you can't control events and circumstances in your life

Learned helplessness
Learned helplessness.
"What's the use in trying?"

You believe your actions are largely futile, and you've little real power to change your situation

Learned helplessness is a condition of resignation.

You feel like you've been banging your head against a brick wall, and there's simply no point in trying any further.

You think, "What's the use?"

You've 'learned' to believe that control lies outside the self; it's in the hands of others - the powers-that-be, the authorities or fate.

Your own actions count for little. Destiny rules.

So you simply surrender, withdraw within and suffer in silence.

You 'give up,' and passively endure; accepting 'the inevitable,' you submit to your fate.

Learned helplessness is generally the result of repeated failure to control unwanted events in your life. It can be a serious health problem.

It reduces your self reliance, motivation, personal performance and social assurance. You can feel trapped and manipulated by circumstances in your life, and powerless to break free.

Learned helplessness will hold you back from achieving your goals. Awareness is the first step in overcoming it.

Learned helplessness is generally associated with stress. It has been linked to many dangerous diseases and it may lead to depression.


1.  Learned helplessness and stress

learned helplessness and stress both involve poor coping skills

Even relatively minor challenges can appear overwhelming

Suffering from learned helplessness
Learned helplessness typically causes withdrawn, passive behaviour. Over time it can increase the risk of serious illness.

Examples of poor coping strategies include excessive avoidance of conflict, smoking, eating or drinking too much and denial (ignoring problems, hoping they will go away)

Sufferers often react passively to threats, failing to display 'normal' signs of frustration of aggression.

If they are bullied or taken advantage of, they are unlikely to fight back or complain.

The link between stress and learned helplessness may be important. It appears that chronic (long term) stress can lead to learned helplessness. Chronic learned helplessness, in turn, has been linked to higher risk for many illnesses.

This suggests the importance of stress management in preventing the development of learned helplessness and higher risk of illness, in the first place.

We're often told that that stress is bad, but it's chronic (long term) stress that's the problem. Ordinary everyday stress is a normal part of life, and is beneficial not harmful. The so-called stress response, often called the fight or flight response, is your body's natural reaction to anything that threatens to disturb your equilibrium, safety or security; evolution has equipped us with the mechanism to aid our survival in the face of danger.

The stress response is a normal and necessary function, important not only for our survival in emergencies but also useful in spicing up our lives and motivating us to achieve goals.

Chronic stress has been linked by many researchers to a range of illnesses.


Learned Helplessness, written by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman, remains the definitive work on the subject.

This important book reviews the research thoroughly and argues the case for a theory emphasizing personal control. If you wish to explore learned helplessness more deeply, you'll find this a compelling work by three of the most widely recognized leaders in the field.

It also appears likely that in many cases, long term stress leads to learned helplessness, a condition of resignation, setting in train physiological changes which are in turn harmful to health.

This idea suggests that disease may not strike simply as a direct result of the stress response (which is itself a natural, healthy phenomenon), but rather as a result of resignation, helplessness and failure to act.

Illness may be caused by a more complex sequence of events. Repeated failure to deal adequately with a stressful situation, combined with low self-esteem, poor coping skills and a belief that control lies outside the self would lead not only to the experience of 'stress symptoms' but also create the conditions for learned helplessness and resignation.

This contrasts with the more traditional view is that illness is a direct result of the continued long term production of stress hormones.

Whatever might be the case, there is certainly evidence linking resignation and disease.

Research suggests that learned helplessness may be a factor giving rise to a range of serious physical illnesses. In fact, learned helplessness may be the real culprit behind a number of diseases traditionally linked with stress.


2.  Learned helplessness and disease

Disease often follows a distressing experience

That may be because helplessness and despair undermine the will to survive

When you believe you can't control the cause of your distress, you can easily succumb to the calming, tranquilizing effects of resignation - of just giving up.

Learned helplessness and disease
Learned helplessness can trigger the onset of disease.

Resignation causes harmful biological effects, like suppressing or shutting down the immune system. (Perhaps the body considers the immune system unnecessary if you've given up!)

Links between resignation and disease (or death) have been shown both in animal studies and in human studies involving prisoners of war, concentration camp survival, spouse bereavement and long-term pain and disability.

People facing hopelessness or despair, such as from a severe painful illness or the loss of a life partner, may lose their 'will to live,' succumbing to illness, and even death.

Many of us can recall someone who died shortly after the death of their spouse, or soon after retirement (loss of purpose) or while suffering a long-term and painful illness (loss of hope).

Of course dire or distressing experiences don't always trigger the body's numbing self-destruct system.

But frequently, people who feel they 'just can't cope' with threats and challenges do adopt a helpless and self-tranquilizing outlook.

Helplessness is a poor coping strategy. It seeks rescue in anesthetizing present pain. In the end however it finds no relief, but it arrests any impetus toward practical action.

While resignation may appear to be counter intuitive, to those who experience it it is a tranquil (though abject) state of mind.

In its extreme form, it's a twilight from which few struggle to return.

In other cases, learned helplessness can lead into various forms of depression.


3.  Learned helplessness and depression

Depression can result when you no longer feel in control of your life, and you blame yourself for your helplessness

This can lead to belief that your life choices are irrelevant, creating a pervasive feeling of hopelessness and dependence on others

Research shows that depression resulting from learned helplessness is characterized by feelings of loss of control and hopelessness, and attitudes of apathy and submission.

Learned helplessness is more likely to lead to depression when you:

  • see the cause of your lack of control as internal rather than external, that is, blame yourself - "It's my fault I'm like this."

  • believe your inadequacy to be global rather than 'specific' - "I'm just hopeless at everything! "

  • believe the situation is stable rather than unstable - "I'll just never be able to get this right!"

On the other hand, you are less likely to feel depressed when you:

  • attribute your lack of control to something external rather than internal - "It's not my fault"

  • believe the situation is specific rather than global - "If I can just get this aspect right, everything else will turn out fine"

  • believe the situation is unstable rather than stable - "I expect time will change things anyway, perhaps for the better."

4.  Learned helplessness and self esteem

Low self esteem and learned helplessness go together

Building your self-confidence is crucial


Secrets of Self Esteem by Mark Myhre is a 7 volume audio set that shows in detail how you can overcome the problem of poor self-esteem.

Mark Myhre has been called the self-esteem wizard because of his extensive knowledge on the subject.

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He shows how 'true' self esteem comes from 7 unique components, as opposed to 'false' esteem, which is based on the opinions of others that we unconsciously accept.

He then proceeds to offer a blueprint for building your self-esteem

Secrets of Self Esteem is easy to work through. It is designed to help you confidently and quickly overcome poor self esteem and lead a more satisfying life.

Have you ever heard someone say (or said yourself) 'I'll do what I can.'

Well, whether we say it or not, mostly it's what we all do: what we can.

Or more precisely, what we think we can.

Which is just another way of saying what we believe we can.

You see, your beliefs govern your behaviour.

Chances are, you won't even try something if you don't believe you can accomplish it. You will hold yourself back.

Henry Ford, founder of the American Ford Motor Company, once said, "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right."

People are successful because they believe they can prevail. They believe in themselves.

If your inclination is to believe you will fail rather than prevail, failure is virtually assured, for the only real failure is failure to try.

Imagine just what it would be like if your self-belief was so restricted, you had overwhelmingly negative thoughts and feelings about your capabilities. You would continually doubt yourself, feel inadequate judge yourself harshly. You would be convinced you just didn't measure up, didn't have what it takes, were just not good enough.


The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden is the definitive work on self-esteem by the leading pioneer in the field.

This book is the culmination of a lifetime of clinical practice and study.

It is regarded as a classic, the most significant work on the topic.

Immense in scope and vision and filled with insight into human motivation and behavior, The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem is essential reading for anyone with a personal or professional interest in self-esteem.

Brandon shows why self-esteem is a basic measure of psychological health, achievement, personal happiness, and positive relationships.

He introduces his six pillars-six action-based practices for daily living that provide the foundation for self-esteem-and explores the central importance of self-esteem in five areas: the workplace, parenting, education, psychotherapy, and the culture at large.

The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem shows why, in today's chaotic and competitive world, self-esteem is fundamental to our personal and professional power.

Such a person feels unworthy. Undeserving.

That's the feeling of low self esteem. You place false boundaries around yourself; walls you can't climb.

Unfortunately, many of us suffer from low self-esteem.

Your personal belief system determines your self-image. You are what you are because of the way you see yourself.

This means you act and live in accordance with your self-image, which is the 'truth' about yourself, as you see it.

You are what you think you are, based on your belief system.

If you change the way you think, you will change the way you act. You will change the way you are.

Unfortunately, our subconscious belief system often includes boundary beliefs like: 'Nature is real, forget the ideal; it's impossible!'

This kind of thinking, a fatalistic acceptance that external 'reality,' is altogether beyond your control, lies behind a defeatist attitude and can lead to a lack of confidence in yourself, and to feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.

Poor self-esteem is the measure we use to describe these feelings of inferiority, which can even develop into a profound sense of humiliation at your perceived personal worthlessness.

Left unchecked, such feelings can lead directly in a downward spiral to the condition we call learned helplessness.


5.  Overcoming learned helplessness

It's often possible to overcome learned helplessness

Learned helpless can be overcome
Learned helplessness can be overcome. You must tap into your reserves of determination.

"I Can do this"

Some researchers suggest that learned helplessness may be prevented or reversed by learning to view situations in a more positive way using the language concepts introduced above.

Many people can achieve this by themselves with a little practice, perseverance and patience.

If you feel you may be suffering from learned helplessness, try it yourself. The next time you feel you've lost control over the events in your life, take a break for a moment and reach deep inside for the determination that we've all got in reserve for the times we need it and we choose to use it. It's in there.

Now set about interpreting your situation as if you were taking responsibility to control it:

  • accept that it's not all your fault; perhaps none of it is. (the cause is always at least partly external). In fact, once you determine to control, it's an advantage if some of the opportunity for improvement is within yourself. That gives you even greater control

  • accept that no situation involves everything in your life (the situation is specific). If you do have shortcomings related to this situation, that's fine - you can work on them. It doesn't take away from your strengths and opportunities elsewhere

  • no set of circumstances is permanent (remember, any situation is unstable, and things will change, they always do). Even if you can't find an immediate solution to this problem right now, you can work towards minimizing recurrences or getting into better shape to deal with future occurrences. This particular occurrence will be over in due course. That is certain. All things pass.


6.  Positive psychology and personal control

Overcoming learned helplessness is about regaining
personal control

Ultimately, learned helplessness results from our experience with uncontrollable events

This experience creates the expectation that events in the future will also elude our control. Disruptions to our motivation, emotions, openness to learning and overall health frequently follow in the wake of this perceived lack of personal control.

Many studies show that feelings of loss of control can lead to health problems; in these studies, subjects who feel they have even a small amount of control report feeling happier and healthier.

This suggests we need an attitude towards life that emphasizes personal control and individuality rather than dependence and conformity.

But how can I achieve greater personal control?

Most self-help books promote a 'positive thinking' approach, e.g. "If you think you can do it than you can do it."

The academic underpinning for this approach is a relatively new branch of psychology called positive psychology.

From the 1940s, early humanistic psychologists, notably Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm, began developing theories and practices addressing human happiness and fulfillment. Earlier influences on positive psychology had come primarily from philosophical and religious sources.

Recently these theories of human flourishing have found empirical support in studies by positive psychologists and in research into brain function by neuroscientists.


Martin Seligman is the leading spokesman for the relatively new Positive Psychology movement, which focuses on mental health rather than mental illness.

In Authentic Happiness, Professor Seligman draws on groundbreaking research to show how you can nurture your signature strengths to benefit your health, relationships and careers. By identifying the very best in yourself you can achieve lasting personal change and benefit the world around you.

More than just an antidote to learned helplessness, Authentic Happiness will help you relize your full potential. An important, exciting and entertaining book.

Positive thinking stresses the need for techniques like the repetition of affirmations, positive self-talk and other techniques, to frequently remind yourself that you do have a degree of personal control in most situations. Usually more than you imagine.

By choosing to think positively you can change your perception of a situation and improve your ability to cope.

Such techniques are often recommended for stress management and self improvement.

They are the basis for achieving authentic personal growth.

This thinking has been influenced since the 1980s by Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory, which emphasises the importance of self-belief. This theory holds that people with a high self-efficacy expectancy (i.e. a belief that you can achieve what you set out to do) are healthier, more effective, and generally more successful than those with low self-efficacy expectancies.

Learn more about stress and its causes

Many experts believe stress is among the biggest killers of our time. Research has linked it to leading causes of death including cancer and heart diseases. Long term stress can cause serious, irreversible and even fatal damage.

Are you stressed? Find out now if you are at risk.

The worst thing you can lose in life is your health!

If you haven't done so, start at the beginning, where we ask what is stress? See how the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response releases chemicals into your bloodstream; this normal and natural survival mechanism can harm your health if it persists over the long term.

If you're feeling crushed by a continuing failure to cope with distressing demands in your life, you may be suffering from learned helplessness. Learn how to recognise and deal with this condition.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by life events bringing significant changes in your life, try this life events stress test.

See if you identify with some of these common physical symptoms of stress or these common mental signs of stress.

Discover how causes of stress work and read this overview of the the biggest causes of stress. The seven biggest causes of stress are summarized below, with links for more detail on each.

And finally, beat stress in your life! Use stress management techniques to overcome your biggest causes of stress.

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Learn how to deal with it.

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You can achieve genuine, lasting change NOW.

The Research

Martin Seligman and his colleagues coined the term learned helplessness in the late 1960s.

They had observed that laboratory animals subjected to various ordeals from which they could not escape lost the will to help themselves even when escape became possible.

They simply cowered and whimpered; their total resignation suggesting they preferred self-destruction to continued torment.

It's thought that humans enduring uncontrollable and unbearable experiences may react the same way, losing the will to survive.

Since then, considerable literature has linked hopelessness and helplessness in humans with various diseases and premature death.

Further studies, on animals subjected to painful and distressing experiments, have associated resignation with ulcer formation, increased steroid release, vital lymphocyte cell suppression, changes in metabolism and deadly immune changes.