Anxiety and Learned Helplessness

Health Writer
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People with anxiety can sometimes have what is called learned helplessness. This is when you react in the same way to a situation even though this action does not help resolve it, or you make no attempts to escape a difficult or dangerous situation. You might give up in the face of adversity because you believe there isn’t anything you can do to change the outcome.

  • People with specific phobias who go out of their way to avoid a situation or object even though it interferes with their daily life have a type of learned helplessness.

  • A child who receives “F” on several math tests and decides he just isn’t any good at math and stops trying has a learned helplessness.

  • Someone with social anxiety who isolates herself because it is easier than facing other people has a learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness occurs when you feel you don’t have control over your emotions. Rather than try to control them, you stop; you give up. You don’t feel that you have the ability to change things. Your anxiety begins to control you, rather than you controlling it.

You might have learned helplessness only in certain areas. Jack, who believes he isn’t good at math and gives up trying after receiving poor grades, might still believe he excels in other subjects. He might do well in history and science, or be a great athlete. Or, he could globalize his feelings, thinking, “I am not good in math, therefore, I am not good in school,” or “I am stupid,” or “School is too hard.”

These feelings can affect your entire outlook on life and lead to feelings of hopelessness.

How cognitive behavioral therapy can help

The good news: Learned helplessness can be unlearned. Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective at teaching how to change this type of faulty thinking. In this type of therapy, you might be asked to reframe how you think and react to situations, for example:

Elaine wanted to lose 40 pounds. She tried diet after diet but never stuck to one for more than a few weeks. The first time she would “cheat” and eat something unhealthy, she thought the diet was a failure. After years of trying to lose the weight, she gave up, telling herself “nothing I do works. I don’t have any willpower. I might as well give up. I will always be overweight.” She had learned helplessness, and usually ended up buying cupcakes.

If Elaine reframed her thinking, she might think, “Whenever I give up on a diet, I feel that I am a failure. When this happens, I give up and eat unhealthy foods.” Knowing that her goal is to lose 40 pounds, Elaine might think of different ways to accomplish this. She could join a gym. She could work with a personal trainer and a nutritionist. She could talk to her doctor. She could join a weight loss program instead of jumping on the latest diet fad. She could change how she perceived a single cheat. Instead of, “I am a failure,” she might say, “That wasn’t on my diet but that doesn’t mean I can’t start again. Cheating one time doesn’t make me a failure.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you learn new and healthy ways of perceiving yourself and the world around you. It can restore a sense of control over your fate. It helps you to unlearn unhealthy ways of thinking and replace them with balanced, healthy perceptions.

Self help tipet small, achievable goals. Jack might aim for a B or C on the next math test, rather than punish himself for failing to get an A. Elaine could try to lose 5 pounds instead of 40. Take small steps rather than attempt giant leaps, and congratulate yourself for each success.

Be your own best friend. What would you tell a friend going through a similar situation? Would you tell her to give up, or offer support and encourage her to keep trying? Talk to yourself as a friend would. Show yourself compassion.

Focus what you can control and let the other pieces fall into place. Jack can control whether he goes to class, does his homework, asks the teacher for extra help. Elaine can control whether she goes to the gym, makes an appointment with a doctor, joins a weight loss program. When you focus on the actions you can control, you feel better about the situation.

Don’t worry about making the “right” decision. Whatever situation you are facing, there are many different ways to go about something. Make a decision, try it out, decide if it works and revise if it doesn’t.

Sources:

Maier SF, Peterson C, Schwartz B. From Helplessness to Hope: The Seminal Career of Martin Seligman. Swarthmore College. https://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/helplessness.pdf. Accessed January 12, 2017.

Nemade R. Cognitive Theories of Depression - Seligman. Pecan Valley Centers. http://www.pvmhmr.org/5-depression-depression-related-conditions/article/13008-cognitive-theories-of-depression-seligman. Accessed January 12, 2017.


Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbaileyand on Facebook at eileenmbailey.