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What Is Learned Helplessness, and How Do You 'Unlearn' It?

What Is Learned Helplessness, and How Do You 'Unlearn' It?

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Understanding Learned Helplessness: Its Symptoms and How to Overcome It

Learned helplessness is a condition where a person becomes stuck in difficult situations, feeling overwhelmed and without control. This phenomenon was first identified by social sciences researchers Martin Seligman and Steven Maier during an experiment on electric shocks in dogs in 1967. They found that the dogs stopped trying to find a way out after continuous exposure to the shocks. Human adaptation of the experiment used loud noises instead of electric shock, and the results were similar: those unable to control the noise in the first attempt didn't try to control it afterwards.

The research highlighted the fact that undergoing repeated abuse and aversive situations erodes two critical factors for mental health: self efficacy and internal locus of control. Self efficacy is the level of confidence in being able to handle challenges and learn new skills, while internal locus of control is the degree to which one believes their circumstances are under their control. Low levels of these two traits often lead to feeling powerless and that no effort is necessary to make a change. It should be noted that one can experience learned helplessness in some areas but not others.

Five Common Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

The following behaviors are common signs of learned helplessness:

  • Low self esteem: People with learned helplessness often feel negatively about themselves and doubt their ability to complete even the simplest tasks.
  • Frustration: Feeling helpless erodes one's confidence in being able to change their circumstances, leading to a low frustration tolerance.
  • Passivity: Adopting an attitude of 'bad things just happen to me' often stagnates action and effort.
  • Lack of effort: Learned helplessness can lead to procrastination and an avoidance of decision making.

Learned helplessness can be caused by neglect, trauma, and overparenting (or 'helicopter parenting') in childhood. Left unchecked, it can have serious consequences in an individual's life, so it is important to recognize the warning signs and seek help to overcome it. Shiken offers a wide range of resources for building resilience, agility, and well-being, and creating a high performing workforce.

The Effects of Learned Helplessness and How to Overcome It

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition which occurs when a person feels unable to control a situation, even if they have the resources to do so. This can be a challenge to overcome, but with the right strategies, tools, and support, anyone can take control and become empowered. Here are a few suggestions for overcoming learned helplessness.

Individuals often find that working with a therapist or coach is a great way to tackle unhelpful thoughts patterns. A skilled professional can ask questions which will get to the heart of where these thoughts are stemming from. With practice, it is possible to recognize and replace these thought patterns with more positive ones.

Building self-efficacy is another excellent way to create a version of success. When four main pillars are strengthened - positive thoughts, vicarious exposure, affirmations, and mastery experiences - self-confidence will start to grow in activities like kickboxing, creative writing, and baking. As this self-confidence increases in those areas, it will be likely to ripple into other aspects of life.

The Possible Consequences of Learned Helplessness

Potential outcomes of unaddressed learned helplessness include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Adult entitled dependence (AED)
  • Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Trouble managing and changing behaviors, such as addiction and substance abuse
  • Inability to reach desired goals, such as changing careers or leaving a relationship
  • Problematic follow-through
  • Unhappiness and a sense of hopelessness

Learning Optimism as a Counterpoint to Helplessness

Traditionally, Martin Seligman's studies on learned helplessness showed that a certain percentage of people who faced uncontrollable events predictably became helpless. However, about 10% of people seemed immune to this effect. Steven Maier discovered that the dogs weren't actually learning helplessness - they were simply failing to learn control. This showed that when our brains determine that a situation is within our control, the fight-or-flight instinct can be limited.

Seligman coined the term "learned optimism" to describe the behavior of those unaffected people. This is the counterpoint to learned helplessness, where people internalize a feeling of hope and belief in their circumstances. Challenging distorted thought processes is key to becoming more optimistic and it's possible to manage stress with the right tools and support.

Holistic Wellness: Why You Need It

Holistic wellness, or examining and evaluating all aspects of one's life, is an immensely important concept which should be incorporated into daily life. Having strong connections with family, friends, and strangers can create a sense of emotional security, and engaging in activities which one finds enjoyable helps to foster a sense of balance. Additionally, surround yourself with people who make you feel supported and loved to make sure you have a sense of social wellbeing.

The Bottom Line

Learned helplessness can have a detrimental impact on your life, but it is possible to overcome it. Working with someone who understands this thought process can be a huge step towards unlearn this condition and finding a version of success which works for you.

Holistic Wellness and Emotional Regulation

Holistic wellness is the concept of attending to all areas of life to create a sense of overall wellbeing. This includes physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, financial and environmental health. All of these elements are interconnected; one cannot be achieved without attending to the others. To practice holistic wellness it is important to take time to evaluate each of these areas and think about how they contribute to one's wellbeing.

Breathwork: The Key to Emotional Regulation

Breathwork is a powerful tool used to regulate one's emotions. It involves using the breath to enter an altered state of awareness, and can be used as an effective form of inner healing. There are many breathwork practices to choose from, such as the Wim Hof Method, Holotropic Breathwork, and Pranayama. It is important to experiment and find a practice that suits your lifestyle and brings about a state of emotional equilibrium.

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