In the 1960’s and 1970’s, experiments were conducted in animals that demonstrated what eventually became known as learned helplessness. In some of the experiments, dogs were subjected to painful shocks. Some of the dogs were able to leave the area, and learned to do so in order to avoid the shocks. Other dogs were not able to leave the area and were forced instead to endure the shocks. When that dog was later moved to an area where it had the opportunity to escape the shocks, it didn’t (link). This is a very brief overview of just one of the experiments and I’ve shared links below if you do want to read more on it. Quite frankly I don’t want to go into grotesque details about these experiments (which were considered okay at the time but certainly would not be ethical now!).
“Learned helplessness is a phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it (Cherry, 2017). Eventually, after enough conditioning, the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain at all—even if there is an opportunity to truly escape it.” (link)
When I read about learned helplessness in Burnout last night, it was like a light finally turned on. I’ve previously read about learned helplessness, but never really equated it to something that I’ve experienced or as a cause for how I’ve been feeling as of late. And I’m not an anomaly, it is rather common knowledge in the world of psychology that learned helplessness plays a role in “depression, PTSD, psychosomatic vulnerability, and a variety of diseases and immune disorders.” (link) Learned helplessness may be seen as frustration, giving up or lack of effort, failure to ask for help, low self-esteem, passivity, poor motivation and procrastination. (link)
Really, none of this is necessarily groundbreaking. When you read the information, you think to yourself “well of course this makes sense”. But to see it spelled out and to see the science and facts really made things click for me that I’m not silly for being overwhelmed, I’m not lazy or a quitter; I’ve literally been conditioned in certain circumstances to accept that there is nothing I can do. Whether or not this is “true” is irrelevant; for the dogs experiencing shocks who were finally given an opportunity to escape, there was technically something they could do, but they acted based on their past experiences and what they had learned – which is that they were helpless to do anything to change their circumstances.
What might learned helplessness look like in humans?
Perhaps at work you have tried to make suggestions and have repeatedly been ignored and shut down. Meanwhile change after change keeps coming down the pipes (I’m going to take a wild guess that the majority of it is not good change) and you’re expected to continue on while adjusting to and juggling all of these changes. When you try to stand up for yourself, you get cut down. Day in and day out. And one day, you realize that somehow you’ve learned that nothing you do matters, none of your ideas will be considered or even heard and that it’s easier to stop trying.
Perhaps with the current pandemic situation you’ve been conditioned to expect that nothing you do matters, especially if you’re one of the responsible individuals who have been taking precautionary measures. If you’ve been carefully staying home as much as possible, washing your hands and wearing a mask, you might experience learned helplessness as the numbers continue to increase and more and more restrictions are put into place. Despite how hard you’ve tried, none of it seems* to matter and you just feel defeated. (*It does matter, even if you can’t see it and thank you for doing it.)
Perhaps you are in a less than ideal relationship where no matter what you do, it is never good enough. Despite all your best intentions, the other person still treats you poorly. Despite going out of your way to exert effort, you’re still left feeling like you can never do enough.
What can we do to overcome learned helplessness?
As always, please speak with your doctor or a psychologist. There are many different therapies that may be helpful.
Re-teach yourself that what you do matters. That your actions have effects. Maybe you can’t do this in the exact situation where your learned helplessness was conditioned, but try to do it in any area of your life. In Burnout, the authors say “we unlearn helplessness by doing a thing – a thing that uses our body”. Prove to yourself that you can still do something.
Exercise. I hear you. I know that sometimes you don’t have the energy to get out of bed let alone run a 5k. But there is some brilliant research that is starting to show that exercise isn’t just good for us because of weight loss and endorphins but that it can actually help animals overcome learned helplessness 5 and that it is vital for completing the stress response. (Have I told you to read Burnout yet? Read the book.)
Try to reframe the situation. Are you really entirely helpless in a situation (you might be, and it’s okay to acknowledge that) or is that just how you feel? For example, perhaps you can remind yourself that you do not have any control over how other people behave and that the case count might continue rising, but you are not helpless in keeping yourself and your family safe from COVID-19. Your efforts are what allows you and your family to spend each day healthy.
My last parting thought is (yes, yet another) quote from Burnout because it’s an absolutely incredible analogy. “The Kobayashi Maru…[is] a training simulation for Starfleet cadets, an unwinnable scenario designed to test your character. You can’t win, so the goal is to lose in a way that’s honorable.” Look at your life and all the situations that seem “unwinnable”, all the situations where you are tested over and over. All the times that your efforts went unnoticed. “[You] win every time because [you] prove [your] character. Look how strong it made [you]. Look how smart it made [you].” You are not helpless. No matter what lies you’ve learned.
Hang in there.
Nagoski, E. & Nagoski, A. (2019). Burnout : The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Random House Publishing Group
Greenwood, B. and Fleshner, M., 2008. Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain. NeuroMolecular Medicine, 10(2), pp.81-98.