Understanding learned helplessness in the context of trauma might offer a way of working through C-PTSD symptoms.

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The theory of learned helplessness that originated in the late 1960s was originally studied for depression and is now a school of thought in the development of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and other related conditions.

While learned helplessness can affect anyone, it often takes root in early childhood. However, trauma experienced in adulthood can also leave you feeling helpless.

If you’re experiencing prolonged trauma and feel helpless, you can be encouraged that the path to recovery often begins with a change in perspective.

Ultimately, learned helplessness is something that can be overcome with informed intervention and some basic action items.

Learned helplessness is a type of behavior that usually occurs as a result of co-occurring depression and emotion regulation difficulties. The theory explains when a person perceives a particular inevitability and makes no attempt to overcome it despite available help.

Learned helplessness can occur in response to prolonged or repetitive trauma but, typically, there are efforts to escape the outcome of trauma, or complex trauma. For example either a person will fight to escape or avoid the danger outright.

If a person doesn’t try to improve their relationships despite available resources and help, they could be demonstrating learned helplessness.

For example, consider someone living with C-PTSD who was previously in an abusive relationship for several years. In approaching their future relationships, they may believe that they can never escape the trauma from an abuser.

They may also believe that their future relationships are destined for heartache. All their attempts at improving their relationships may feel wasted, despite having access to practical and informed help.

The original theory of learned helplessness was developed in 1967 by psychologist Martin Seligman and neurobiology researcher Steven Maier. The theory was formed after a two-part experiment where three groups of dogs were exposed to random electrical shocks.

Seligman and Maier’s experiment: Part 1

Dogs in group 2 could move a lever to stop the shocks. Dogs from group 3 didn’t have access to that lever and were shocked every time a dog from group 2 received a shock.

Since the dogs in group 3 didn’t have access to a lever, the random shocks seemed unavoidable.

The dogs from group 1 didn’t get shocked but were placed into harnesses for some time and then released.

Seligman and Maier’s experiment: Part 2

Then the three groups were exposed to a partitioned box where one side was giving shocks and the other wasn’t. The dogs could freely jump over a low barrier to escape the shocks.

The dogs in both groups 1 and 2 jumped over the barrier and escaped the shocks. But the dogs from group 3 (that didn’t have a lever to shut off in part 1) didn’t attempt to escape at all.

Although they could’ve easily jumped over the partition, the inescapable extreme stress they were exposed to in part 1 led those dogs to believe that there was nothing that could be done to escape the shocks.

At the end of the experiment, researchers concluded that the dogs from group 3 essentially “learned” helplessness in response to the initial trauma.

Such was the basis for learned helplessness theory, which was later re-evaluated and corrected by Seligman.

Seligman and Maier’s amended conclusion

According to their 2016 updated study, Seligman and Maier reversed their conclusion that the dogs actually didn’t learn to be helpless in response to the shocks. Rather, the passive, helpless behavior they demonstrated is the default reaction to prolonged and imminent stress.

In other words, the dogs didn’t actually learn helpless behavior but instead failed to learn how to escape from the extreme stress.

Learned helplessness can affect anyone. It can often begin in early childhood, especially if a child was abused or neglected, according to a 2016 review of studies. Under these circumstances, a child can take on a significant amount of emotional distress and ultimately develop feelings of helplessness.

Abuse and neglect are particularly problematic in childhood because kids are unlikely to associate what they’re experiencing with abuse. They also have less knowledge and resources to make actionable changes.

The result, for example, could be that the child grows up believing they’re worthless, insignificant, or powerless in the face of stress or adversity.

The early, traumatic experiences of childhood can then develop into more complicated conditions such as C-PTSD.

C-PTSD and learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is most commonly observed in major depression. But it can also occur in complex PTSD (C-PTSD).

C-PTSD, a more severe form of PTSD, typically develops after prolonged, repeated trauma. Although more current research is needed, the learned helplessness theory may help to explain why conditions like C-PTSD develop.

Situations that result in learned helplessness behaviors parallel those that create C-PTSD, according to a 2011 study. Namely, exposure to prolonged trauma experiences could cause a sense of helplessness about the situation.

Aside from C-PTSD, learned helplessness is also linked to major depressive disorder (MDD).

A common symptom in both depression and PTSD, loss of pleasure in formerly enjoyed activities (called anhedonia) may be explained by learned helplessness theory, according to a 2021 study.

Therapies for trauma and PTSD, in general, would also be effective for learned helplessness and C-PTSD, though research is limited.

These therapies include:

Both therapies may assist in the development of hopeful perspectives.

The role of explanatory styles

The updated conclusions from Seligman and Maier’s 2016 study suggest that a hopeful way of making sense of complicated circumstances (aka “explanatory style”) can overcome learned helplessness. They elaborated that this is likely the best defense against the default helpless response.

Your explanatory style centers around the beliefs of how much influence you have on a situation. If you see yourself as a passive agent in an uncontrollable situation or you believe you have some influence on a situation and hope that it will not be permanent (that hope would underlie a semblance of control).

Both perspectives influence your potential for helpless behavior explain the researchers.

If your explanatory style is passive, you may feel there’s nothing that can be done to recover from depression or significant trauma, and so you don’t try. Ultimately, this enables your sense of helplessness.

If your explanatory style is active, you may view your trauma as a learning experience. This style could then serve to protect against helplessness by enabling a hopeful perspective.

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