Learned Helplessness And The Road To Recovery

18 Comments 30 September 2010

This is a guest post by Maria Rainier. Maria is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education and performs research surrounding online degrees. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.
When certain individuals of certain dispositions are dealt enough bad hands, they cease to bounce back, and they plummet into clinical depression.

As one example, disordered eaters face trials every four hours or so when they must eat.

Regardless of their actual food intake, anorexics, bulimics, binge-eaters, and the like perceive the act of eating itself

as a failure and eventually cease to see much of anything as a success. Even the act of weight loss disappoints them, as the desire to lose more is ever-present, and there is guilt in the act of purging. Positive thought escapes them and their inner relationships with themselves—their spirituality—is marred with despair.

Seligman, Maier, and Learned Helplessness

Many disordered eaters and sufferers of clinical depression have learned to be depressed, to be helpless. American psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman and Steve Maier conducted experiments in the 1960s to develop their theory of learned helplessness.

Three groups of dogs were involved, all of them in harnesses, Group One being in the harnesses for a short period and later released. For dogs in Group Two, pressing on a lever could stop the electric shock administered to them, but dogs in Group Three had no control over the duration of the shock. While dogs in Groups One and Two recovered from the experiments quickly, dogs from Group Three displayed many signs shown by clinically depressed humans.

In another of Seligman’s and Maier’s experiments, the same groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus. Dogs could escape the shocks by leaping over a fence to the other side. Most dogs in Group Three, who had already learned that the electric shocks were inescapable, made no attempt to remove themselves from the apparatus and merely submitted to the shocks, whining.

The Perceived Absence of Control

In later experiments, Seligman and Maier learned that dogs could learn helplessness merely by observing the helplessness of other dogs; this can hardly be untrue in the human experience. Witnessing uncontrollable events on the evening news can easily give one the blues.

Obsessing over negative thoughts, however, trains the mind to react pessimistically to events. Things outside of an individual’s control thus become, to that individual, potential disasters rather than opportunities.

Breaking the Cycle With Positive Thinking

Of the 150 dogs in Seligman’s and Maier’s experiments, about one in three escaped their learned helplessness and became opportunists—they found ways to escape unpleasant situations despite their histories. Similar behaviors exist in humans, relating to optimism.

Optimism can be summed up by the philosophy that occurring events are impermanent, not damning, and impersonal. A car accident is not an act of God, the universe did not stop to make one’s day miserable, and the sun will rise tomorrow. What separates the optimist from the pessimist continues to undergo study.

One need not wait, however, to break the cycle of depression and pessimism. As one can train oneself (consciously or not) to be helpless, one can also learn happiness. Replacing each negative thought with a positive image, keeping a gratitude journal, and enlisting in the help of close friends and family can greatly increase the joy in one’s life.

In the event of a fender-bender, replace the rage and disappointment with gratitude that no one was injured. Have friends remind you to voice negative emotions less often and express thankfulness more openly, without abandon. Keep key phrases and mantras on hand to recite, either aloud or to yourself.

Clinical depression takes years to develop, and so learned happiness comes only with time and effort. It is a journey, however, to a better place.

Your Comments

18 Comments so far

  1. Dieting says:

    Martin Seligman, in his book, Learned Optimism, wrote about the chief psychological phenomenon of modern life.

  2. Pacheco says:

    Awesome share! Thank you very much

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    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

  5. David says:

    Thanks – really useful.


  6. You certainly deserve a round of applause for your post and more specifically, your blog in general. Very high quality material.

  7. I think this is one of the most important information for me. And im glad reading your article. Good job, cheers

  8. Love this blog post. Where did you find this information?

  9. Good post overall. Enjoyed reading it.

  10. Andrew.L. says:

    Great positive insights.. i enjoy reading it.
    Andrew.L.´s last blog post ..Idol White – Dental Whitening Product Review

  11. Kenneth says:

    I like how this post reminded me that the goal of life is simply not to get so down, you become depressed clinically. That’s the certain spirit I have put in making my videos that reach out to those in need.

    -Kenneth Williams, creator of video “What Made You Give Up?” at

  12. albert says:

    This is so true. People need to change the way they think to improve themselves.

  13. dating tips says:

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  14. Test says:

    Hey there! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the excellent work!

  15. Jillian says:

    This is such an important topic to help people that depression and eating disorders go hand and hand, and that they are mental illnesses not just vanity or even a choice for the sufferer.
    Jillian´s last blog post ..My 30 Day Shred Challenge: Day 3

  16. A motivating discussion is worrh comment. I think that you should publish more about this
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    issues. To thhe next! Many thanks!!
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