The Idea of Learned Helplessness: Understanding a cause of depression

This one goes out to the people at the back. To all those who who struggle in silence but make it out alive against all odds.

Learned helplessness is but one of the causes for depression.

Here, let us take a look at what ‘learned helplessness’ really is and how it affects someone suffering from it. Towards the end of the article I’ll outline the best way of overcoming this way of thinking.

So, stick with me; I’m certain that in one way or another this article will can be of use to every single one of us!


Learned helplessness is an attributional style of coping that occurs when an individual has endured an unpleasant experience. It’s not a healthy means of coping, however. There is an explanation as to why there are people who do this.

Learned helplessness does not necessarily happen by the sufferers’ own doing. It may be in fact on the contrary to that belief. Most commonly, learned helplessness occurs when a person who has been through a troublesome situation perceives said circumstance to be inescapable.

Notice that this root of the problem seems like a perfectly natural response to a threatening situation. Thus, we can determine that learned helplessness stems from the mismanagement of our cognitive thought processes.

This is especially true but not limited to the case of children who have lived the crucial years of their lives in a difficult upbringing. Through their innocence and inexperience, children are rendered incapable of bringing about an effective change to their situations.

It feels dark, bleak, lonely, and to a great extent, there is suffering, too. Over the years of negative reinforcement, they eventually stop resisting.

We pick up a fairly tactical skill in life. That is, we learn to trust or distrust the things around us. We develop that skill to the point that we can choose to place our trust (or not) in the world as a whole. We can even apply that skill to our own being. Hence, the formation of our worldview and the assessment of our self-worth.

However, that very thinking strategy can backfire. We can see the unintended consequence by classifying the negative thought processes that result into internal, stable, and global attributional style of coping. For instance, should something in our lives take the unfortunate turn, the person may believe that:

  • They are at fault for the mishap, when they are not. This is the Internal Attributional Style.
  • That things are to remain bad forever, when they will not. This is the Stable Attributional Style.
  • That more bad things are bound to happen in the present and future, when it’s possible they won’t. This is the Global Attributional Style.

Reflection and effect

When we are depressed, we are void of emotions. We find no pleasure in the things we used to enjoy doing, we experience a constant loss of appetite, and perhaps the only emotional stimulation we might feel is a hint of sadness.

Learned helplessness contributes more to that suffering. By a cruel twist of fate, the very cause of that depression is what intensifies it. It is a learned behaviour, albeit not the best kind.

This habit usually occurs from a young age when people are most vulnerable in defending themselves against circumstances that are beyond their control. However, that is not to say that it doesn’t appear in adolescents and adults, too.

When we live through an experience, some part of it will always be a part of us. Every experience, big or small, moulds us. Sometimes, certain habits like learned helplessness can be carried forward into our futures. It becomes a practice of a fragmented perception of trust.

But do not despair!

When all is said and done, situations change. They always do. And that will be okay. It just means that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see things get better and do better to see into those changes. You can always be the change you want to see.

Treatment and management:

Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) by Ellis (1962)

Allow me to introduce to you the psychological approach ‘REBT’. It is a form of therapy that is heavily influenced by the principles of Stoicism; a philosophy that argues that the majority of our problems are not directly affected by existing external factors, but rather by our own perception of our circumstances.

Our internal constructions of our environment are important as they determine our perceptions as well as our default attitudes towards facing problems. The term REBT sounds bombastic for a treatment, but it really isn’t all that bad. It’s just another ‘talking therapy’.

Here are the (simplified) procedures to give you an idea of how this mode of therapy is conducted on patients.

1. Getting acquainted with the therapist

REBT is a one-to-one session between the individual and the therapist.

The therapist will explain that there will be an understanding of confidentiality. This agreement is a professional etiquette to confirm that the therapist is sworn to total secrecy and cannot share any information externally without the patient’s consent. It is also known as doctor-patient confidentiality.

The therapist will have to determine where exactly the individual’s level of depression falls on the spectrum, and whether the patient suffers from mild, moderate, or severe depression. This will give the therapist a better idea of what and how treatments are to be conducted.

2. Introduction to the ABC model

To simplify, B is the element that deserves the utmost importance. It mainly revolves around the individual’s beliefs about a particular event.

Ellis believes that the way we perceive a situation brings about a greater impact to our emotions and behaviours than the external factor itself.

He believes that people who hold fixed, irrational, and negative thoughts are more likely to be at risk of depression. This links back to how depression arises from internal, stable, and global attributions.

3. Maintaining rational thinking

The therapist identifies negative thought processes such as self-pity, self-defeat, and guilt within the individual with the intent of changing those patterns of thought into something more positive.

Negative behaviours such as withdrawal, addiction, avoidance, and self-harm are also to be abstained from during this process.

This is done by a technique known as ‘disputing’ where the therapist forcefully asks questions to counter their patient’s (negative) way of thinking.

Once the necessary information is collected, the therapist works with the individual to reformat their dysfunctional thinking.

4. Making the link

The therapist encourages the individual to realise that they can choose how they think and feel about any sort of setback and adversity they face.

With the help of the therapist, the individual will then make the connections that consequences (C) are only partly caused by an activating event (A).

Further, the patient realises that negative beliefs (B) are to be let go off and to be replaced with more optimistic ideas. Thus, the connections of the ABC model are completed.

5. End of treatment

REBT reaches a conclusion when the individual is able to apply the theory of the ABC model on themselves and their circumstances without the help of their therapist.

Once the patient has reached a high level of understanding, the assistance of their therapist is kept minimal until ultimately the sessions cease entirely.

Unlike other one-to-one talking therapies, REBT takes account of the patient’s present situation and takes little regard for their past experiences.

Recent research also shows that Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) has effectiveness that rivals that of even the prescriptions of antidepressants. This is a testament to how much REBT helps to alleviate depressive symptoms.


There is never any shame in reaching out for professional support if you find yourself suffering from depressive symptoms. These may include:

  • Changes in mood such as long periods of despair
  • Changes in behaviour such as social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Loss of appetite and sleep
  • Difficult decision making
  • Contemplating suicide


[1] Seligman, Martin & Castellon, Camilo & Cacciola, John & Schulman, Peter & Luborsky, Lester & Ollove, Maxine & Downing, Robert. (1988). Explanatory Style Change During Cognitive Therapy for Unipolar Depression. Journal of abnormal psychology. 97. 13-8. 10.1037/0021-843X.97.1.13. 

[2] Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. Lyle Stuart.

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