The term emerged following psychological research undertaken by M. Seligman in the 1960s. Learned helplessness is a situation that occurs after a person has repeatedly experienced something which causes them stress and disappointment. With repetition, someone may begin to feel that they are ‘unable to control’ or change the situation. With this in mind, they may no longer feel able to make attempts to adjust their circumstances, despite possible opportunities for change.
It is a part of negative conditioned learning which happens subconsciously. The impacts of this learning can exacerbate existing senses of loss of agency, which is commonly associated with depression. Thoughts may include sensations such as ‘this is going to last forever’, or ‘this situation is endemic and internal to me’. Thoughts of this nature often hold immense power, as they can feel as though they are the real, rational response to the course of events.
For many people, the real-life application of learned helplessness occurs in workplace, family, and relationship contexts. Following the belief that agency is lost, many begin to think, feel, and act as if that agency is completely lost, even though this is not necessarily the case.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based, talking therapy technique that helps people cope with difficult thoughts (including learned helplessness) by breaking them down into smaller parts and helping to break or weaken cycles of thought, or ‘un-learn’ ways of thinking in a gradual way, to support a more hopeful, holistic approach.
At Fernwood Clinic, all of our practitioners are chartered psychologists fully trained in CBT. For further resources: NHS on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy - here, or for more on the academic basis of this subject, see Science Direct, here.
Elsa Minns, Fernwood Clinic Team
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