Learn more about the science of helplessness and how we can protect our sense of agency in an unwieldy world.
Helplessness is the belief that you lack agency in a situation. When we feel as though nothing we do will have any effect on our circumstances, nothing is what we typically choose to do. Though there are certainly emotional components to helplessness, researchers typically focus on the cognitive and behavioral components. In other words, the science of helplessness is mostly about the sense of uncontrollability and the inaction that follows.
Referring to helplessness as a “belief” might sound like it discounts the possibility that helplessness is a reality. Scientists define helplessness in terms of a mental state because research has shown that after experiences in which we lack control, the sense of helplessness can become a disposition. In other words, being helpless in one instance can make us feel helpless in all instances, leading us to become withdrawn, a-motivated, and depressed (Pryce et al., 2011).
What About Learned Helplessness?
The term ‘learned helplessness’ refers to the tendency to stop trying to change a bad situation after being exposed to uncontrollable stress. Martin Seligman, the pioneer of learned helplessness research, defines learned helplessness as “the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” In one of his earliest writings on the topic, he lays out 3 basic consequences of learned helplessness (1975):
Reduction in motivation to control the outcome
Interference with learning that responding controls the outcome
Production of fear for as long as the uncertainty and uncontrollability last followed by depression
The causes of learned helplessness are varied and sometimes very specific to individuals. In general, learned helplessness can result from any situation in which you don’t have (or feel as though you don’t have) any control. Some common examples include:
Research shows that, in addition to the situational examples above, learned helplessness can be caused by personal biological and psychological characteristics. For example, studies have shown that genetics can contribute to the development of learned helplessness. That is, genetics could structure our minds in such a way that we would be more likely to feel helpless (Vaugeois et al., 1996). Psychological factors such as being pessimistic, having low self-efficacy, and having the tendency to attribute favorable outcomes to causes that are unstable, specific, and beyond personal control are also closely linked to feelings of helplessness (Gurefe & Bakalim, 2018; McKean, 1994).
What To Do
Helplessness is a painful feeling and, when it becomes generalized, can be debilitating. Luckily, we can learn to identify how to manage and prevent feelings of helplessness.Here are some tips.
Identify the source of the feeling
When you are feeling helpless, it can be useful to take time to consider why. Are you dealing with an atypical amount of stress? Are you recovering from a recent traumatic experience or triggered by a more distant one? Are you in an uncontrollable situation? Identifying the source of the feeling can give you a better sense of what strategies you might employ to manage it.
Focus on what you can control
When we fixate on the things we can’t control, we lose sight of the things we can. The more time spent ruminating on our feelings of helplessness, the more likely we are to make it worse. Giving ourselves a moment to take stock of where our power lies can help us identify the steps we can take to improve our situation and inspire us to keep trying.
Remember your strengths
Reminding ourselves of our skills, talents, and capacity for greatness can be exceptionally challenging to do when we are feeling helpless, but can also be exceptionally helpful for helping us regain our power in every way possible. Keeping a list of your moments of triumph, special skills, or even just things you like about yourself can come in handy the next time you’re in need of a reminder.
Check in with your body
Stress, trauma, and depression affect our bodies as much as they affect our minds. By developing a deeper awareness of how our bodies respond to these common causes of helplessness, we can begin to identify patterns and tend to our needs sooner and more effectively.
Be aware of your self-talk
Sometimes when we feel helpless, we tear ourselves down further and keep ourselves down with the way we talk to ourselves. Being as kind and gracious with ourselves as possible can help us avoid being pulled into a depressive episode. And in times when kindness and grace aren’t easy to come by, feel free to invoke the old childhood maxim: if you can’t say anything nice to yourself, don’t say anything at all.
Helplessness is a state of mind we might all be familiar with. It can be caused by anything from addiction to being stuck at work late on a Friday. Sometimes, our experience of helplessness can start to feel like a general truth about our reality. When our feelings of helplessness are generalized beyond the context that inspired them and we feel as though we’re generally powerless, we lose motivation to try, and risk missing out on our best life. Fortunately, there are some strategies we can employ to manage our feelings of helplessness like focusing on what we can control and being gentle with ourselves.
Gurefe, N., & Bakalim, O. (2018). Mathematics Anxiety, Perceived Mathematics Self-efficacy and Learned Helplessness in Mathematics in Faculty of Education Students. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences, 10(3).
McKean, K. J. (1994). Using multiple risk factors to assess the behavioral, cognitive, and affective effects of learned helplessness. The Journal of psychology, 128(2), 177-183.
Pryce, C. R., Azzinnari, D., Spinelli, S., Seifritz, E., Tegethoff, M., & Meinlschmidt, G. (2011). Helplessness: a systematic translational review of theory and evidence for its relevance to understanding and treating depression. Pharmacology & therapeutics, 132(3), 242-267.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: Freeman.
Vaugeois, J. M., Odièvre, C., Loisel, L., & Costentin, J. (1996). A genetic mouse model of helplessness sensitive to imipramine. European journal of pharmacology, 316(2-3), R1-R2.