Understanding Learned Helplessness and Anxiety

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Learned helplessness is a state that animals can get in when they regularly meet negative stimuli when they try to escape. After a time, they stop trying to escape completely, assuming that it is hopeless and they are unable to change the situation. This can become so prevalent that even when an escape is presented, they are unable or unwilling to take advantage of it.

This concept of learned helplessness plays a large role in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If you continually feel helpless due to your anxiety, you may give up looking for a solution, accepting the current state as inevitable and unchanging. Continued inaction can cause you to refuse therapy or medication, even when those things could make a considerable difference.

Learned Helplessness and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Learned helplessness often begins at a young age, such as during childhood.

Scientists hypothesize that distant parenting can worsen learned hopelessness and anxiety, as the child learns early on that they are helpless and that their parents will not come to their aid.

In addition, growing up with parents who suffer from learned helplessness themselves can lead to the child developing it, too.

Over time, as the child ages, they will likely see their situation as being set and determined, unable to be changed. Particularly if they has anxiety, this can be incredibly persistent. They becomes so used to their anxious state of mind that they cannot imagine any other way of living or that recovery could be possible.

The Vicious Cycle

The learned helplessness and anxiety symptoms can be a vicious cycle. If the child is anxious and can't be soothed, they feels like nothing can be done and learned helplessness sets in. The more they accepts it as inevitable, the more anxiety takes hold.

Symptoms of learned helplessness linked to anxiety include:

  • Frustration
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Difficulty sleeping


While learned helplessness can be a serious problem, it can be successfully treated if targeted by a mental health professional. Studies have found that if people receive intervention at the onset of learned helplessness, it can be decreased through therapy and coaching. Even at later stages, improvements can be made with regular work. Once this issue is tackled, then treatment for anxiety can begin successfully.

Getting Help

Not all people with GAD will experience learned helplessness. It develops over the course of time with certain sets of factors at play. Genetic and environmental factors may increase a child's likelihood of developing both GAD and learned helplessness.

If you feel you have gotten stuck in a pattern of learned helplessness, visit a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation to get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, you will learn how to counter your learned helplessness instincts and replace them with more rational, optimistic thoughts.

You may learn to dispute your own assumptions and promote coping skills to manage your symptoms. In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to help manage your anxiety so that you can concentrate and focus on your treatment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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  • Seligman, ME. "Learned Helplessness". Annual Review of Medicine, 1972, 407-412.