Tend to feel overwhelmed easily by life? Like things are just beyond you? ‘Learned helplessness’ is a behavioural pattern that can be changed.
What is learned helplessness?
Somewhere along the line in childhood, you learned you couldn’t control things around you, and decided to stop trying to help yourself.
The term comes from a series of rather horrible psychological tests led by American psychologist Martin Seligman  in the 1960s, using electric shocks on dogs. The end conclusion being that if a dog suffered repeatedly, in a way that was beyond it’s control, it would then not take an opportunity to escape suffering if one was presented.
Neuroscience later proved it’s not that we ‘accept’ that we are helpless. Rather it’s that we actually learn the behaviour of helplessness as an appropriate reaction to stress.
So learned helplessness means that when we face a stressful situation we can’t control, we have no motivation to change it or take action to deal with it, even when there are things that we could do to help ourselves.
What does learned helplessness look like?
If you suffer from learned helplessness, difficult situations will see you:
Depression is heavily linked to learned helplessness. Seligman felt that this happens when we attribute our problems to ourselves.
Instead of realising that some of our problems are down to exterior issues — the environments we are in, for example, or the choices of others? We decide that we ourselves are incapable, what he called ‘personal helplessness’. Our self-esteem evidently plummets.
This does not mean that everyone with a difficult past experiences has learned helplessness. Some of us are naturally more prone to a pessimistic outlook, for example, which makes us more likely to feel helpless. So two siblings who lived through the same difficult domestic situation might grow up with one experiencing helplessness and the other, with an optimistic ‘explanatory style’ about life, not as much.
Can I ever change?
Learned helplessness doesn’t have to be forever. Both changing your lifestyle habits and seeking support can mean improvements and change for you.
A study on animals found that the brain changes made by exercise had an affect on feelings of helplessness.
Rats who ran on wheels were less likely to exhibit learned helplessness, and it wasn’t related to the amount of exercise but to the very act of exercising at all.
Learn how to approach problems from achievable steps first. A goal-setting system like SMART, for example, can help you learn to break down goals into simple steps you can actually achieve.
A 2004 study on American students and test-taking found that those who started with easy questions first did better. If students were presented with difficult questions off the bat, they were more likely to experience helplessness and then not even get easy questions right later. 
Can therapy change my pattern of helplessness?
Finally, do consider seeking support. Remember, asking for help is harder for those with the trait of helplessness. But it also means that the very act of gathering your courage and getting support begins to raise your sense of agency and personal power.
All forms of therapy will help you get to the root of your feelings of helplessness, and learn to be more resilient and more in control of your life.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)can help you recognise and change the negative thinking and passive behaviours that uphold your feelings of helplessness. It a particularly good place to start if you suspect your helplessness is connected to childhood trauma. CBT helps you stabilise before you you try other therapies that might otherwise trigger your body’s trauma response.