Depression and Learned Helplessness

There was a series of terribly unethical animal experiments that occurred in the 1960’s. While they are horrifying to read about, they really give wonderful insight into the behavioral phenomenon of “learned helplessness,” which has implications in the development of Depression. You can read a summary of those studies, written by the researcher Martin Seligman who linked the animal study outcomes to Depression in humans, here.

Normally, when exposed to painful or harmful stimuli, we move away from or try to avoid what is causing us harm. A simple example of this is when we accidentally touch a hot stove and have the immediate reaction of pulling our hand away. We also try to learn how we can predict the environment and anticipate what we need to do in the future to also avoid the harm. We do this, for example, when we remember to use a potholder as we remove the lid with a metal knob that is sitting atop a heated pot – this allows us to avoid the pain that comes with touching hot metal. If we didn’t learn to predict our environment through cause and effect, we would be at a loss at all times for how to keep ourselves safe in the world.

The ability to learn how to avoid pain, both in the present and the future, was poignantly demonstrated in Seligman’s experiments through the administration of painful electric shocks to dogs. Some dogs were allowed to learn how to avoid the shocks, meaning their environment was allowed to be predictable, such that they were able to escape the shocks after crossing a barrier and gradually learned to behave in a way that completely avoided the shock altogether. Seligman calls this “avoidance training,” and only 6% of dogs failed to be “trained” how to avoid the pain of the shock under these predictable circumstances.

Another set of dogs were given “uncontrollable electric shocks” prior to being given the opportunity to escape them. Meaning that, for a period of time, these dogs were given shocks and had no means to escape. What happened was that a dog in this situation “soon stops running and howling and sits or lies, quietly whining, until the shock terminates.” The dogs stopped making any attempts to escape, and even when the opportunity to learn to escape was present, two-thirds of the dogs did not learn to escape. They had essentially learned that they were helpless.

It is noteworthy that Seligman also found a “cure” for the dogs that had learned to be helpless – he had to literally pull them by a leash across the cage to demonstrate to the dogs that, given the correct position in the cage, the shock would stop. Initially, the dogs were very hesitant to move, however “less and less force is needed” as the dogs slowly learned that through changing their behavior, they can escape the shock. Compared to the dogs who did not first learn to be helpless, it took them longer to realize that escape was possible, even with the guidance of being tugged on a leash. They had to un-learn their helplessness before they were fully accepting of what they were capable of.

If dogs could speak, and we could ask them what they learned as a result of being given an uncontrolled shock that they could not escape, they might’ve said something like:

I am receiving harm and I cannot prevent it, reduce it, or control it

There is no point in trying to escape

I have no hope

Seligman draws the link between the phenomenon of learned helplessness and Depression, stating that the helplessness and hopelessness demonstrated in these experiments is characteristic of those suffering from Depression. After having learned that no action will bring relief, it makes sense that a reduced tendency towards action would follow.

I can’t help but relate the concept of learned helpless to developmental trauma and attachment wounding. Many of us have had the experience of feeling disconnected in childhood – due to physical and sexual abuse, name-calling, being ignored or belittled, being shamed, etc. – and when we are young we are especially vulnerable to these experiences. We rely on the people in our lives for food, clothing, shelter, connection, acceptance, and love. We don’t have the ability to remove money from our bank account and move to a different city if, as a 6-year-old, we decide, “This abuse and/or neglect just really isn’t working for me.”

We may come to learn that whatever the “harm” is – whether it’s physical, sexual, emotional, being ignored or neglected – we are helpless to change the situation. We may come to “give up” and see it as part of our fate. We may grow up and become adults in the world, but still have a sense that there is nothing we can do but accept the fate of being harmed by others, ignored by others, judged by others, or belittled by others. We may not “learn” that we can escape and influence our fate by making healthier connections. We may not believe it’s possible. We may not even see it when it’s there in front of us. We have learned it just doesn’t exist for us.

When healing from developmental trauma, we must first unlearn what we have learned about ourselves and our capabilities. Only then can we truly realize what we are capable of, coming to trust ourselves more and more with every step we take. Just like Seligman tugging on the leash of the dogs who had learned helplessness, at times we need to begrudgingly push ourselves towards action and towards connection, even when we don’t think it’s possible.

  • Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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