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Learned Helplessness

Are We Becoming the United States of Learned Helplessness?

An endless cycle of gun violence may be destroying our mental health.

Key points

  • Learned helplessness is a state experienced by humans in response to enduring negative stimuli.
  • Learned helplessness saps the desire to escape even when an exit route is presented.
  • Learned helplessness can also show up as a result of a perceived inability to enact gun reform to persistent gun violence.

There’s a scientific term for the feeling that nothing you do matters: learned helplessness. It is a state experienced by all humans (and most animals) in response to enduring negative stimuli. In particular, learned helpless occurs when one perceives that this aversive trigger is unavoidable and unchangeable. By some interpretations, learned helplessness is a resultant state of psychological powerlessness that leads to a complete loss of effort to escape from a negative situation. In a more extreme form, learned helplessness saps all desire to escape, even when an exit route is presented. Think of the prolonged tragic hopelessness of idle Vladimir and Estragon as they wait for Godot.

In mental health, learned helplessness is a dominant theory relating to a perceived (real or otherwise) absence of control over a harmful or threatening situation. Learned helplessness is often used as a psychological framework for clinical depression. First identified by the research of Seligman and Maier in 1967, learned helplessness continues as an important paradigm for measuring depressive behaviors in relation to aversive stimuli. Neuroscience studies show that changes in the brain’s serotonin system often accompany learned helplessness and that serotonin-based approaches can help treat the condition. In fact, many anti-depressants, such as SSRIs, act by increasing the brain’s serotonin level. However, learned helplessness is also complex and involves various brain regions involved in fear and cognitive processing like the amygdala and cortex, respectively.

Social factors that cause learned helplessness

While triggers for learned helplessness in a lab or clinical setting can be traced to specific aversive experiences, widespread social factors can also cause learned helplessness. For example, every dictatorship in the world exemplifies a society exhibiting learned helplessness. Women and persecuted minority groups, forced to exist under authoritarian regimes, also exhibit learned helplessness. Learned helplessness can also show up in the American political landscape as a result of a perceived inability to enact gun reform or create safety measures for persistent gun violence by the majority of Americans who want stronger safety legislation. Thus, while the ongoing stalemate in addressing gun violence may be due to political and/or ideological factors, the outcome is a growing perception of lack of control, paralysis, and collective unavoidable trauma.

Learned helplessness takes its toll

At the individual level, this form of learned helplessness is bound to take a toll on emotional wellbeing, psychological resilience, and even the ability to engage in public interactions. Perhaps we are already witnessing social learned helplessness through the evidence of rising rates of drug abuse and increased social as well as cyber forms of aggression. Because the cure for learned helplessness in this case cannot come from common strategies, such as re-framing violent events, it will be important to identify and directly address ways to deal with this ongoing social situation.


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