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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Toller

Learned Helplessness Through a Trauma Lens

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Many individuals who have experienced a traumatic event feel a sense of learned helplessness. This feeling occurs when people become so accustomed to feeling powerless and out of control that they eventually believe they are incapable of influencing their environment or situation. Trauma can cause individuals to feel disconnected from their thoughts and emotions and the people around them. This disconnection can lead to a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. If left unaddressed, it can be devastating both mentally and emotionally.

In the late 1960s, American psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments on dogs that would have far-reaching implications. In the first experiment, he placed the dogs in a harness and applied electric shocks to their leg at random intervals. The dogs quickly learned to associate the shock with the sound of a ringing bell, and they began to show signs of distress when they heard the bell. However, Seligman then placed the dogs in a second chamber where they could escape the shock by jumping over a low wall. Despite this, the dogs made no effort to escape and simply lay down and whimpered when they heard the bell ring. Seligman concluded that the dogs had learned to be helpless and had given up trying to escape the shock because they believed there was nothing they could do. This led Seligman to theorize that the dogs had become "learned helpless" and that this type of learning could also occur in humans. The experiment was replicated with human subjects netting similar results.

Since then, there has been much research on learned helplessness in humans. Studies have shown that learned helplessness can be induced by various methods, including exposure to loud noises, repeated failures, and experiencing physical or emotional abuse. Research is ongoing, and the findings could have important implications for understanding and treating mental health disorders.

Trauma and Learned Helplessness

It's not uncommon for people to feel helpless in the face of trauma. This feeling can be especially pronounced if the person has experienced multiple traumas or if the trauma was particularly severe.

There are several reasons why someone might develop learned helplessness after experiencing trauma. One reason is that they may believe that they are powerless to prevent or stop the trauma from happening. Feeling helpless can be especially true if the person could not protect themselves during the trauma or felt like they had no control over what was happening.

Another reason someone might develop learned helplessness is that they may have difficulty processing the trauma. This can be due to different factors, including the person's age at the time of the trauma, how long ago the trauma occurred, and whether or not they have access to support and resources to help them process what happened.

Finally, someone may develop learned helplessness because they believe no one else can understand what they're going through. This isolation can be perpetuated by the shame and stigma that often accompanies trauma.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

While initially learned helplessness was studied in animals, it has since become a basic principle of behavioural theory. While learned helplessness is a natural response to difficult life experiences, it can hinder healthy coping and adaptation. Fortunately, therapy can help people to overcome learned helplessness and regain a sense of control over their lives.

In Seligman's book Helplessness (1975), he argued that due to these negative expectations, other consequences might accompany the inability or unwillingness to act. These include chronic failure, low self-esteem, and physical illness, as well as some conditions and behaviours like clinical depression, domestic violence, poverty, discrimination, drug abuse, and alcoholism.

Treatment options include therapy, medication, and self-care. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are two approaches that have been shown to be helpful. CBT focuses on helping people to change their negative thinking patterns. DBT, on the other hand, emphasizes teaching skills such as mindfulness and emotional regulation. Both CBT and DBT can help people to regain a sense of control over their lives and improve their overall well-being.

Learned helplessness is the belief that you can't do anything to change a situation, so you may as well give up. This mindset can be caused by a variety of factors, ranging from previous experiences to outside influences. However, it's important to remember that learned helplessness is not an accurate representation of reality. You can have the power to choose how you respond to a situation, and taking action can lead to positive results.

If you find yourself feeling hopeless, try these three tips:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings: It's normal to feel overwhelmed when facing a difficult situation. Recognizing and accepting your emotions is the first step toward moving past them.

  2. Break the problem down into manageable pieces: Trying to solve a big problem all at once can be daunting. Instead, focus on taking small steps that will lead you closer to your goal.

  3. Seek out support: Lean on family and friends for emotional guidance and practical assistance. Talking about your struggles can also help you gain perspective and find new solutions.

Remember, you are not powerless. Overcoming learned helplessness is possible with effort and commitment.

As we have seen, learned helplessness can develop in a person after they experience a traumatic event. This trauma can be physical or emotional abuse, sexual assault, the death of a loved one, or any other situation that leaves someone feeling powerless and out of control. If you feel like you may be struggling with learned helplessness, please don't hesitate to call Nõmina. We can help you understand what is going on and provide support as you work through this challenging, but potentially healing process.

Learned Helplessness Through a Trauma Lens




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