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Breaking The Chains: Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is defined as the general belief that one is incapable of accomplishing tasks and has little or no control of the environment. For example, an adult who has never been able to lose weight will quickly begin to feel that nothing he or she does will have any effect on their health.

Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

  • Passivity.

  • Giving up.

  • Procrastination.

  • Decreased problem-solving ability.

  • Frustration.

  • Low self-esteem.

Affects on health

When a person feels overwhelmed or believes they are unable to change their physical health it inevitably declines. For example, an individual may decide they want to improve their health by losing weight or simply improving their fitness. However, past experience may tell them that they can never lose weight or they will always be fat. There is so much diet and exercise information can be overwhelming and cause a person to give up on exercise before they begin. A person who experiences learned helplessness may attribute their past failures to things outside of their control such as “I am obese because of my genetics”; “I cannot lose weight because diets do not work for me” or “I will never be healthy because I have diabetes”. A person who says these things aloud or to themselves has a pessimistic explanatory style. This causes a person to give up before they try because of the feelings they experience when they consider past outcomes or simply ponder their goals. Because they may experience feelings of being overwhelmed, helplessness and anxiety, their inability to try means they unknowingly display health inhibiting behaviors.

Strategies to overcome learned helplessness


overcoming learned helplessness means empowering a person or yourself towards taking intentional actions, attempting to make all experiences positive, a resilient sense of self, and healthy development away from impulsive functioning. This may mean finding the motivation to exercise, using positive self-talk, attributing positive emotions to positive experiences and moving away from a pessimistic style and moving towards a more optimistic style.

Positive Explanatory Style

altering a child‘s perception of the relationship between his behavior and the occurrence of failure would result in a change in the child’s response to failure. For example if you can teach a child to perceive success as the effort the give verse the actual result of the task you can change that child outlook on success in general. Children receiving help on ways to perceive failure far exceed the abilities of their peers and suffer less from peer pressure. While success is the most effective way to motivate children and adults, errors in everyday life will need to be accepted and children need to learn to accept that their performance will not always be perfect.

Learned Optimism

like learned helplessness, optimism can also be learned. Studies show that people with an optimistic outlook are higher achievers and have better overall health. A person with an optimistic outlook will perceive failure as a learning experience rather than a permanent or personal reflection of one’s ability to succeed.

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