Learned Helplessness

By Staff

A critical component of detrimental, cyclical behaviors is the concept of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a real phenomenon that many individuals will experience at one point or another. 

Learned helplessness arises when an individual has repeatedly been exposed to failure, suffering, or some other negative provocation and is not able to stop it. After such repetitive exposure without solace, the behaviors and perception of the individual will adapt to minimize internal resistance to the phenomenon.

As such, learned helplessness occurs: the subject affected by such negativity comes to fundamentally internalize that there is no other way; they cannot change the outcome and will not change. The concept of change, depending on the extent that the event has been ongoing without recourse, may not even exist as a reality to this individual. The longer these processes go on, the more entrenched they become.

It is important to remember that thoughts, as fleeting and mysterious as they may seem, are the result of actual physiological processes – physical processes in your brain.

In your brain are billions of neurons, specialized cells that relay messages to one another through chemicals and electricity. These neurons are interconnected in complex ways, and groups of many neurons form “circuits” in the brain. When particular groups of neurons are active very often, they undergo a potentiation – making it easier for them to become active. The more and more these particular groups or circuits are used, the easier it is for them to be used. This is why “habits” are so hard to break, and it takes so very long.

Do you find yourself spontaneously checking your phone for social media alerts? Do you find yourself always playing with your hair or touching your face? If you have any “habits” such as these, you can know that they are the result of neuronal pathways that for one reason or another have become strongly wired to fire together. 

The same can be said of particular groups of thoughts which revolve around a common theme. To break free from anxiety, depression, substance addiction, or some other dysfunctional mental state requires overcoming circuits which have become very strong in firing together – and the more they fire, the more they want to fire. 

Such is learned helplessness, a cemented set of pathways leading to one thing: I am powerless. In many I have reached out to, this is vocalized in ways such as: “I want to change, but I can’t”, “I will always be this way”, “There’s no point in trying”, or sometimes in a series of excuses; always making an objection to why something can or cannot be done: all forms of this learned helplessness. 

Overtime what began as a conglomerate of various thoughts and habits evolves into physical changes in the brain and body, sometimes causing irreparable alterations. Though, change is always possible to some extent; that extent can only be determined by the individual and their environment.

To break free of inability to take novel action, ironically one must take action. It helps to have others to push you; though it is certainly possible to do it on your own. For those who have internalized learned helplessness, a structured environment, constant feedback and motivation, and a good support network can make all the difference. 

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