How To Unlearn Learned Helplessness

When bad things happen, most of us like to believe we would do whatever it takes to change the situation. However, there are times when someone can feel like they have no control over what happens in their lives. They give up and accept whatever happens. This can lead to a miserable routine, because change would create doubt and anxiety about what will happen in the future. This is known as “learned helplessness.”1

Learned helplessness develops from being exposed to harmful events over and over until they seem unavoidable. When someone suffers abuse in a relationship, they may end up “learning” that there is nothing they can do to escape the abuse and, so they resign themselves to the suffering. 

Or when someone fails after several attempts to quit smoking, learned helplessness makes them believe they will always be a smoker. Or when multiple diet attempts prove ineffective for weight loss, they give up trying to lose weight.2

Learned helplessness closes us off from positive prospects and stops us from recognizing when a great opportunity is right in front of us. It can be paralyzing. It keeps us from doing what we need to do to make our life better. 

Learned Optimism

Meanwhile, learned optimism is when someone learns to recognize ongoing negative thoughts and then challenge them. Challenging your pessimistic thoughts can help you reframe them into new,
more positive beliefs. Learned optimism has been shown to improve mood and well-being, boost self-esteem, and encourage more positive behaviors.  

Over time, learned optimism can help you improve your outlook on life and see yourself in a more positive light. In his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Dr. Martin Seligman explains that optimists handle bad events better than pessimists. He listed three main differences between the two:

Permanence: Pessimists see negative events as permanent. Optimists view them as temporary.

Personalization: Pessimists blame themselves when things go wrong. Optimists recognize when outside factors contribute to bad situations.

Pervasiveness: Pessimists have a gloomy outlook on every area of their lives. Optimists tend not to let disappointment in one area of their life affect how they feel about another.

He described these three exercises to help develop optimism:

  1. Your best possible self: Use your imagination and envision a future in which you have achieved the best possible outcomes in your life. This exercise boosts mental well-being and may inspire you to take new actions. 
  2. Put it in perspective: Think of a problem you’re currently worried about. Start by imagining the worst possible scenario. Then imagine the best possible outcome. Next, think about the most realistic outcome. Finally, create a plan for the most realistic scenario. 
  3. Distraction: When negative thoughts seem to play on repeat, use distraction to break out of that cycle. Distraction options include startling yourself (make a sudden loud noise or snap a rubber band on your wrist), shifting your attention (look around the room you’re in and describe it to yourself in detail—notice the light, colors, sounds and smells around you), or scheduling time for your negative thoughts (once you are done, let those thoughts go).
Other Techniques for Tackling Learned Helplessness

Individuals can protect against learned helplessness by practicing independence from a young age, and by cultivating resilience and self-compassion. Engaging in actions that restore self-control can also be valuable. For example, an elderly person who feels helpless can engage in small practices that they know will restore a sense of control.3

One of the best ways to combat learned helplessness is to engage in therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps people overcome challenges by changing how they think and act in certain situations. In counseling, people can receive support and encouragement, develop ways to decrease feelings of helplessness, and replace negative thoughts or behaviors with more positive and helpful ones.

Additional research suggests that exercise can prevent learned helplessness. Physical activity usually benefits mental health and can reduce or prevent anxiety, depression, stress, and other health problems. In addition, eating a healthful diet, meditating, and practicing mindfulness are other lifestyle changes that can boost a person’s mental health and outlook.4

Remember that if you feel stuck, that’s OK. Give yourself a break and know that you have the power to change. This starts with acceptance: You are stronger than you think, and if you are willing to fight through the obstacles, you will be able to see that unlearning learned helplessness is key to living a happy, healthy life. 

  1. Maier SF, Seligman ME. Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience. Psychol Rev. 2016;123(4):349-367. doi:10.1037/rev0000033
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325355#in-adults
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/learned-helplessness
  4. Greenwood, B.N., Fleshner, M. Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain. Neuromol Med 10, 81–98 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12017-008-8029-y

Author

  • Jim is the chief executive officer of Family Support Services of Amarillo (FSS), a not-for-profit agency that traces its roots back to 1908, offering counseling and behavioral health services; advocacy services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking (including Amarillo’s only Safe House for survivors), education and prevention programs for at-risk children, families and adults; and a full-service Veterans Resource Center for veterans, their family members and surviving spouses. Jim has worked in the behavioral health care field for more than 20 years, and has undergraduate and graduate degrees from WTAMU.