Learned Helplessness as a Side Effect of Trauma

Stressed man sitting on floor covering face, sad, having anxiety, distress, depression

In 1967 a researcher, Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, did some fascinating experiments to demonstrate a concept called “learned helplessness.” While we would never conduct these experiments today because they are considered inhumane, the results are noteworthy for anyone who is a student of trauma.

Basically, in the experiments, dogs who were in cages were subjected to mild electrical shocks, which of course was distressing to them. The dogs in the first group quickly learned that they could escape the shocks by jumping over a barrier to a section with no electrical shocking, the second group had to learn to press a lever that allowed them to jump over a low barrier to a section of their cage that was safe. A third group of dogs would try pressing the lever, but nothing would happen, and they would eventually just give up and would passively suffer from the shocks.

Later, the dogs were again given a similar set up but with the third group of dogs who had the opportunity to press the lever and escape the shock, they discovered that they wouldn’t even try. They just laid in the cage and whimpered as they experienced the mild shocks. It took researchers multiple demonstrations and they even actually had to manually manipulate the dogs to take advantage of the escape routes to correct their behaviors and allow them to realize they could in fact escape.

This concept, named “learned helplessness,” describes how a creature basically decides there is no escape from pain, even when shown that escape is possible, and it continues to remain unable to seek safety.

Wikipedia describes it in the following way: “In Seligman’s hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs would need to take in order to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start willfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the ‘helpless’ Group 3 dogs.”

depressed girls holding her head, on a dark blurred background

Why is this so important to students of trauma? It provides an explanation for why someone who has been impacted by trauma may remain in a helpless, abusive situation, unable to claim their power to find safety. If their trauma occurred in childhood, when they had no real power, it can be hard for them to actually realize they have the power as an adult that they didn’t have when they were a child.

Dr. Sandra Bloom in Creating Sanctuary provides an outstanding explanation of this side effect of trauma: “People who are traumatized have been exposed to an acute experience of impaired self-efficacy and helplessness. They were unable to prevent or terminate the traumatic experience. They had no control over what was happening to them. They were helpless. For children raised in abusive or neglectful homes, this failure to achieve a feeling of competence or efficacy often pervades their entire development. Regardless of what they do, how hard they try to please, how fast they run away, how strenuously they try not to cry—nothing stops the abuse. As a result, they often give up any notion that they can affect the course of their lives in a positive way.” She goes on to describe that even children who are not physically or sexually abused can be emotionally abused and have the same responses of learned helplessness to that abuse.

This side effect of learned helplessness can explain why someone seems unable to claim their power to be in charge of themselves, to make healthy decisions about themselves in life, to stand up for themselves when someone is emotionally or physically attacked or disrespected. It is important not to criticize someone for their learned helplessness since it is something out of their control.

Claiming this power is not a cognitive decision and therefore not something a person can be “talked out of.” This is an unconscious, deep-seated belief that there is no escape and that their only option is to remain in a helpless state. This research on dogs and later research on humans using much more humane approaches, can help the traumatized embrace the power they did not know they had. It may require almost forcing them into actions that allow them to claim that power. No simple task! 

Neuroscience backs up this research on learned helplessness. According to Wikipedia, “Research has shown that increased 5-HT serotonin activity in the dorsal raphe plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behavior include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus has also been observed during states of helplessness.”

 Invitation to Reflect

  1. If this is a new concept for you, what are the implications when you observe someone being unable to stand up for themselves, caving easily, or staying in an unhealthy relationship because they say they just can’t leave?
  2. Because trauma is about being in a horrific situation for which there is no clear escape, are you now clearer how it can evoke learned helplessness in the person experiencing it?
  3. Can you see how important it is to be more compassionate toward someone who is demonstrating learned helplessness than critical of them?
  4. If you are someone with a trauma history who now recognizes that you too have the symptoms of learned helplessness, how does this information encourage you to work on changing some of your underlying beliefs that perpetuate the symptoms the symptoms? And if so, who can you turn to who will guide you through it all?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute