Can't be bothered? How to eradicate learned helplessness

If people feel they have no impact or control in their lives, they learn to give up. This is learned helplessness, a psychological phenomenon observed by psychologist Martin Seligman in which people in certain situations learn to be helpless. This is also observed in animals.


In one classic experiment, two dogs were shown food. One dog was allowed to eat the food, the other was shocked with an electric rod every time he attempted to eat. Guess what? After the electric rod was removed, the dog previously jabbed with the shock didn't even attempt to eat.

The dog had learned to be helpless. It had been conditioned to give up and also associated pain to the food.

Watch out for this. I've seen it in many people throughout this pandemic, most worryingly in children. Many are now showing severe signs of this. Watch out when people say they're, 'bored', 'can't be bothered', 'lost' or have 'no energy'. These are not only symptoms of learned helplessness but are also a fast track to depression.

This is, unfortunately, becoming a common occurrence, and its root cause is severe frustration. Every time people re-start their businesses after a lockdown and then (for the 15th time) are made to shut, or children are forced to stay at home a week after they have returned to school, for example, they slowly give up. After all, why should you bother when you keep being beaten down?

In essence, we all need hope, otherwise, everything we do becomes associated with pain. We need to feel like we're progressing, growing, having an impact. So, if you or your loved ones are experiencing this, tackle it straight away by jumping into things you DO have influence in or an impact on - no matter how small. 

People suffering from learned helplessness tend to focus on all aspects of life they have no control or influence over, and this is certainly the case in today's world.

We can't control uncertainties like viruses, the economy, mass political change, or the weather. But, we can change what we focus on, and this is essential for our mental health.

Focusing on what we CAN control is key to a healthy mind. The best way to do this is to grab a pen and paper, then ask yourself positive open questions such as:

  • 'What can I do today to empower myself?'
  • 'What have I done in the past which gave me hope and inspiration?'
  • Or you can zoom in to your immediate environment by asking, 'What can I do now, within this room, that would make a positive impact on my life within the next 10 minutes?'

This could, for example, be emptying a wardrobe, de-cluttering and deciding to sell old items online, doing 30 press-ups, or some DIY to a rotten window ledge! The point is to build momentum through something small that you can have an immediate impact on. Small actions create momentum with leads to more action, impact, influence and usefulness. This is great food for your mind.

If you feel hopeless, then contact a counsellor. Chatting will make you aware of your feelings of learned helplessness, building your strength and resolve to progress, feel influential and make an impact on the world. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Romford RM3 & Brentwood CM15
Written by Adam Day, Counsellor/Psychotherapist/Coach
Romford RM3 & Brentwood CM15

Adam Day is trained in various approaches as an integrative therapist; these include humanistic (person-centred/existential), cognitive behavioural, transpersonal and psychodynamic. He is available for therapy throughout the week from 10am to 8pm.

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