• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Learned Helplessness: A Lack of Control and What to Do About It

Updated: May 23

The Coronavirus and our global response to it have taught us many things but there is a theme underlying it all - we are not in control. Our health. Our jobs. Our finances. Our communities. Our ability to go where we want and do what we want. All of it has been thrown into chaos and this has had a profound effect on our mental health. We are now ten weeks into this new normal, and by now, I think most of us have noticed an uptick in anxiety and depression - personally and collectively. And there is a perfectly good reason for this increase in mental health symptoms. If we go all the way back to Psych101 and look one of those classic psych experiments involving animals that would likely wouldn’t be allowed in today’s world because it’s unethical, we can better understand what is happening in society now as a form of learned helplessness.

What is learned helplessness?

The basic takeaway from the Martin Seligman’s experiments from the 1960’s that gave us the theory of Learned Helplessness is this: after repeated exposure to aversive stimuli, an organism will eventually stop trying to find and utilize solutions to escape – no matter how obvious the method of escape is. While the original experiment demonstrated this principle by delivering electrical shocks to dogs (poor puppies), later (more ethical research) demonstrated the same principle in humans. For example, in one experiment, people were asked to complete challenging mental tasks while a loud, distracting noise was played. Half of the people had the option to flip a switch to turn off the noise and the other did not. Most of the people that had the option to turn it off did not, but they still performed much more efficiently on the task. What does this tell us?

  1. Having control over the stress in our environment makes all the difference in how we cope.

  2. The perception that you have no control in a situation can cause depression and eventually result in not taking control, even when it later becomes possible (aka helplessness).

Learned Helplessness is one way that researchers have explained depression. Why would an individual lie in bed all day and not do the things they once enjoyed? Perhaps it’s because of repeated disappointments in the past that have led to the expectation that showing up and participating in life will not amount to any meaningful progress. It appears that this is what is playing out with this pandemic. At first the virus wasn't even present in our country. Then it arrived and we were told to stay home for two weeks with the assumption that it would all blow over. And now we're ten weeks into this, all wearing masks and staying away from our loved ones and taking precautions we can still barely wrap our minds around. And we still have not treatment or vaccine, and we don't know when we can go back to work and start beginning to plan events again. No wonder we are all feeling a little helpless at this point - we have learned to be this way over the past ten weeks of quarantine.

This is why situations in which you feel that you have no control over the outcome - such as COVID19 - can lead to feelings of depression. It explains our collective depression, our sense of defeat, our feeling that there is not end in sight, and the perception that we cannot do anything to reclaim our lives as we once knew them. Depressing, right?

How do we recover from learned helplessness?

Although this line of research has revealed some pretty grim findings, it’s not all bad news. Just as you can learn to be helpless, you can also learn to be optimistic. If you recognize patterns of learned helplessness in yourself, below are some action steps you can take to interrupt the negative feedback loop and reclaim control.

1. Observe your thoughts: Part of the reason we get into patterns of learned helplessness is the way that we think about situations. This is why two people can experience the exact same event and have entirely different emotional reactions to it – it is because their thought processes are different. Research has shown that with respect to learned helplessness, there are three unhelpful ways we think about things. Notice these thought patterns in yourself and begin to challenge them. When you are feeling anxious or depressed, write down your thoughts. Then go back through and see if you are succumbing to any of the following cognitive distortions.

  • Personalization: a helpless mindset views things going wrong as due to internal causes and focuses on self blame; whereas an optimistic mindset views things going wrong as due to external causes. And the reverse is true for good events – a helpless mindset views positive circumstances as due to chance or external causes, whereas an optimistic mindset views good events as linked to their own behavior. Reminder: You are not to blame for any of the losses - physical, financial, or personal - that you have encountered during this season.

  • Permanence: a helpless mindset feels as though setbacks and challenges are unchangeable and permanent, whereas an optimistic mindset understands them as temporary. Reminder: It won't be this way forever.

  • Pervasiveness: a helpless mindset views one negative outcome as an indication that they are a failure in every area, whereas an optimistic mindset can compartmentalize setbacks and understand that they do not apply to all efforts. Reminder: Not every year will be this tough. Not every event or vacation you plan will get canceled.

2. Focus on what remains in your control: You always, always, always have choices. They may not be monumental and you may not like the choices you have, but you always have choices. Focus on the things in life you do have control over and reflect on the choices you are making. This might be as simple as choosing a time to wake up in the morning, choosing what food to fuel your body with, choosing which mug to drink your morning coffee from, choosing to clean your physical space, choosing which music listen to, etc. If you really pay attention to your daily life, you will find that you have more choices and control than you think you do. Reminder: A lot of your choices have been taken away, but there are still aspects of your life that you have control over. Find those areas, be mindful of them, and make conscious choices.

3. Stop trying to control things you don’t have control over: Part of mental health is recognizing that certain things are not in your control and surrendering your desire to determine outcomes. For example, you cannot control your genetics, the behavior of others, certain medical conditions, natural disasters, etc. Recognize those things and situations you do not have control over and stop trying to exert control over them. Utilizing mindfulness practices and acceptance strategies can be really helpful here.

Reminder: You cannot control the virus of the government's response to it, but you can control your personal decisions in light of these realities. But first, you must accept these realities.


©2019 by Quincee Gideon, PsyD. Proudly created with Wix.com