Learned helplessness, in a nutshell, happens when you give up on getting out of a bad or unwanted situation, even though escape is actually possible.

According to the theory behind learned helplessness, if you’re repeatedly forced to endure painful or stressful stimuli without an opportunity to escape, you eventually learn your actions can’t prevent negative outcomes.

Then, when you encounter similarly stressful stimuli in the future, you believe yourself helpless in these new circumstances, too. Instead of searching for ways to prevent or stop the pain and distress, you might spend your energy trying to endure — or do nothing at all.

Reality can be a bit more nuanced than the original theory suggests, of course. Few people remain completely active or completely passive in the face of hardship. Typically, someone’s sense of agency will fall in the middle.

All the same, understanding how learned helplessness happens and familiarizing yourself with the signs can help you recognize this behavior pattern in your own life.

Researchers Martin Seligman and Steven Maier first described learned helplessness in their famous 1967 experiment.

(As a warning to animal lovers, their experiment did involve dogs.)

Seligman and Maier put three groups of dogs in separate cages with electric flooring.

  • In the first cage, the dogs received no shock.
  • In the second cage, the dogs received an electric shock — but they could stop it by pressing a panel with their noses.
  • In the third cage, the dogs were restrained and had no way to stop the electric shock.

The next day, the dogs were put in cages with a barrier in the middle. The dogs could escape the shock when the electricity started by hopping over the barrier.

  • Among the dogs from the first two groups, 90 percent learned how to escape.
  • Only a third of the dogs from the restrained group also learned to escape.
  • The rest huddled on the floor and waited for the shock to end.

Seligman and Maier believed the restrained group had learned that their actions couldn’t stop the shock in the first cage. They were helpless, in other words. In the second cage, they appeared to apply this lesson of learned helplessness and didn’t bother trying to escape.

The same researchers found similar results among mice, rats, and, yes, people.

It goes without saying that this experiment probably wouldn’t pass ethical review boards today.

Still, it did bring forth the crucial idea that learning goes beyond pairing responses to stimuli. Instead, a lesson learned in one context could be applied to other situations.

If a bad outcome seems inevitable, doing nothing might appear to offer a safer choice than struggling.

Say, for example, a grizzly bear corners you during a camping trip. The area is remote, so you can’t call anyone for help. You also know that trying to fight the bear will likely make it angrier.

Lying down and playing dead is, in fact, the most helpful thing to do if you encounter a grizzly in the wild. Lying flat can make it harder for the bear to toss you around, which reduces your risk of potential injury. It also helps you conserve your energy and stamina so you can seek out a park ranger and get medical attention, if necessary, once the bear leaves.

During that initial grizzly attack, you may, in reality, be pretty helpless. If you encounter an angry dog a week later, though, you probably have other options besides playing dead. Yet maybe, due to your experience with the bear, you believe you can’t do anything but endure a dog bite.

Learned helplessness can show up in more everyday contexts, too. Say you put all your effort into studying for your geometry final at the end of the quarter. You think you know the material, and you finish the test with a pretty good feeling.

But when you get your grade back, you’re dismayed to realize you managed only a C- after all that work. At the end of the next quarter, you don’t even bother studying. Why should you, when it didn’t make any difference at all?

Many people who experience abuse in childhood also go on to develop a mindset of learned helplessness.

As a young child, you might truly have few options for escaping the trauma and abuse. If you later find yourself in a toxic or abusive dynamic as an adult, you might continue to believe you can’t do anything to stop the abuse or change your situation.

So how do you know whether you’re displaying learned helplessness or facing a truly impossible situation? It can help to examine how you feel about your ability to control your life in general.

As a start, consider whether you relate to some of these statements:

  • You avoid placing yourself in situations that don’t have a guaranteed outcome.
  • When you perform poorly, you suspect it’s because you never had the ability to perform well in the first place.
  • When you don’t succeed at a task, you avoid attempting similar tasks because you believe you’d fail them, too.
  • No matter how hard you try, things never seem to work out the way you want them to.

While you may not be helpless in reality, you might genuinely believe you have no influence over what happens. This mindset can make it difficult to find solutions to your problems.

Learned helplessness can appear in a range of contexts.


Research from 2018 suggests a combination of anxiety and learned helplessness can hurt your performance in school, specifically in mathematics.

If you believe you simply don’t have the right brain for math, you might lose confidence in yourself and feel less motivated to practice on your own and study for upcoming exams. After all, if you can’t do math, studying won’t make any difference, right?

This lack of preparation can easily lead to lower scores on tests, which only reinforces your belief that you can’t do math.

Mental health

In some cases, you might find yourself generalizing expectations of helplessness to all scenarios, not only stressful ones. You might even begin to feel like trying to accomplish anything is pointless, an outlook that could contribute to symptoms of depression.

What’s more, learned helplessness can get in the way of seeking support for any mental health symptoms you do experience. If you believe treatment won’t make any difference, you might ask yourself, “What’s the point?” and resolve to bear the distress alone.

Learned helplessness theory can also apply to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If you survived abuse, for example, you might have learned to associate interpersonal conflict with violence. As a result, you could experience intense anxiety responses to minor disagreements.

Instead of working with the other person to find a solution and resolve the disagreement, you might simply avoid expressing your needs and brace yourself to weather more pain.


A 2021 study from the United Kingdom examined citizens’ reasons for not following pandemic safety protocols such as masking. Learned helplessness was one of the top six causes, along with inconsistent guidelines and distrusting the government.

At the start of the pandemic, many people had the impression that social distancing and mask-wearing would diminish the threat of the virus within a few weeks, and everyone could then “go back to normal.”

When that didn’t happen, some study participants gave up on protecting themselves and their communities. Many participants reported losing hope, not to mention a sense of control over their own lives. If the virus wasn’t going away, one respondent said, “we might as well do what we want.”

Similar mindsets in other countries, including the United States, have made addressing COVID-19 on a global level far more difficult.

Fifty years after their original experiment, Seligman and Maier published a paper discussing their follow-up research.

According to the original theory, exposure to inescapable pain teaches passivity. But from a neurological perspective, Seligman and Maier argue, “the original theory got it backwards.” They now say helplessness is the default response.

The new theory has three stages:

Stage 1: Passivity

The first time you get an electric shock, your brain releases chemicals in your amygdala, causing you to feel fear. You will likely freeze up, which hinders your ability to escape. This occurs whether you consider the situation controllable or not.

Stage 2: Detection

Eventually, a circuit in your prefrontal cortex spots a way to escape or stop the shock. Once your brain realizes you can, in fact, control the situation, it stops releasing the chemicals in your amygdala that prompt feelings of panic. You can then take action and stop the pain.

Stage 3: Expectation

The next time you get an electric shock, that circuit in your prefrontal cortex wakes up automatically and starts looking for an escape route. Your brain now expects situations like this to be controllable, so it has dedicated some neurons toward reacting to, and hopefully solving, the problem.

In other words, you don’t learn to be helpless — you learn you can help yourself.

It’s when you don’t get the opportunity to learn this lesson that you might go on to develop a “learned helplessness” mindset.

If you want to feel more in control of your life and become more proactive, you can absolutely take steps to make that happen. These strategies offer a place to start.

Cognitive defusion

In a crisis, fear and hopelessness can feel overwhelming. In an effort to regain hope, you might have the instinct to shout your doubts down. Instead of “I can’t do this,” you may insist, “I am invincible.”

But avoiding unwanted or negative emotions doesn’t make them go away. Deep down, you know you aren’t invincible. Failure is rarely guaranteed, but neither is success.

Research suggests it’s generally more effective to “defuse” your thoughts by facing them head-on instead of pretending your doubts don’t exist. You might, for example, tell yourself things like:

  • “‘I can’t do this’ is a thought, nothing more.”
  • “Just because I think something, that doesn’t make it true.”
  • “These thoughts are annoying, but they don’t control me.”

Mastery orientation

Another way to overcome learned helplessness is to shift your thoughts toward a mastery orientation. This means accepting your mistakes as part of a learning process rather than a reflection of your potential.

For example, say you lose a sparring match at your karate dojo. The frustration you feel may overwhelm you to the point you can’t bear to experience it again. You may conclude you’re bad at karate, that practicing is a waste of time.

But after you calm down, you might benefit from revisiting your match. Why did you lose? Was your footwork slow? Did your punches miss their mark? Once you understand where your performance faltered, you can focus your training on building up those skills.

If you hadn’t lost, you wouldn’t have known those skills needed improvement. By training to overcome them, you can become a stronger fighter overall.

Outside support

If you feel you can’t solve a problem on your own, there’s no shame in asking for help. Other people might spot opportunities you’ve missed. Friends and loved ones can also offer more direct support by working with you to accomplish what you couldn’t do on your own.

Remember, seeking and accepting support doesn’t indicate helplessness or weakness. Rather, it shows knowledge of your own limits, and that’s never a bad thing.

While loved ones can offer comfort and encouragement, professional support can always have benefit when it comes to addressing learned helplessness.

A therapist can offer more guidance with identifying thought and behavior patterns holding you back and help you explore more helpful strategies to solve problems in your life.

Getting support may be even more essential when:

  • this mindset stems from painful or traumatic experiences in your past
  • you experience symptoms of mental health concerns, including depression or anxiety
  • feelings of helplessness repeatedly affect your personal relationships or life goals

In search of the right therapist? These 9 tips can get you started.

The original learned helplessness theory claimed people who underwent repeated, inescapable hardship would learn to give up on future challenges. But don’t forget, it’s just as possible to learn resilience and hope.

Even when you feelhelpless to change anything about a given situation, you may have more power than you think. Not sure how to get started exploring your capabilities? A therapist can always offer support.

Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.