Learned helplessness, depression and the importance of control

The brain is more than just an organ that responds to stimuli in a passive manner while following a biologically preprogrammed sequence of functions. It is supposed to learn, to adapt, to find and act upon motivations, to overcome and better itself. Yet all of this relies on a healthy balance within the brain’s core functionality.

Annoyingly, even when you are aware of your own brain not working as well as it should, it can be hard to impossible to figure out the cause and how to fix it. Even when it does not concern permanent changes to the physical structure of the brain, as with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or brain damage.

After trying to make sense for years of the unique ways in which my own brain is malfunctioning, sometimes you simply need to have someone else give you some hints to help you out. For me such a hint arrived a few days ago in the form of a new video by Dr. Tracey Marks [1], on the topic of learned helplessness [2].

As unfortunate as the name may be, the implications of this concept are rather severe and also very real. Essentially it explains some of the mechanisms behind depression and the acceptance of one’s powerlessness to improve a situation, even when there are clear ways to improve this situation. In the rather extreme experiments of the 1960s with dogs, one group of dogs was subjected to electric shocks with no way to turn them off, while a second group could push a button that would turn the shocks off.

The former group of dogs, when later given the choice to jump over a barrier and thus escape the shocks, would stay in place, while the dogs in the second group jumped over this barrier. In follow-up experiments, including with brain scans and on human subjects, it was found that the essential factor is that of being taught that one is in control, with the default neurological state being ignorance of this ability to control. As has been found while studying depression, trauma processing, syndromes like Stockholm Syndrome and from CIA ‘enhanced interrogations’ sessions, it’s possible to regress someone into this state of helplessness. [3]

With the dogs in the learned helplessness experiments, it was found that demonstrating to them by physically moving their limbs in a way that would allow them to jump over the barrier, they overcame this helplessness. For humans who are suffering from learned helplessness, this is likely to be due to trauma, including PTSD. By repeatedly being subjected to the experience of being powerless and helpless to change or improve one’s situation, and having this reinforced by positive feedback cycles within one’s mind – such as traumatic flashbacks and negative thoughts – breaking out of this behaviour can be impossible.

For my own situation the loss of control is quite apparent. From the initial traumatic childhood event that seems to have violated the most basic trust in adults, to the struggles at and around school, the divorce of my parents, and the subsequent repeated moving across the country, while losing contact with everything and everyone. While already feeling adrift, this was followed by losing any level of control over my own body, as it were the doctors and psychologists who told me what to think and believe when it came to my intersex condition, despite my misgivings.

All of which seems to have led to a persistent state of learned helplessness, amidst PTSD, depression, and shifting levels of negligence and apathy. Perhaps most astounding is that despite how clear this was in my case, it did not appear that any of the psychologists I spoke to ever picked up on this.

Thus the next question is of how to ‘get over’ this state. Clearly the issue is with the lack of trust in that one has any control, thus leading to the lack of motivation that will just ensure the subsequent failure which will just reinforce the feeling of helplessness. Generally it would appear that cognitive behaviour therapy is recommended. Being aware of what is bothering one is definitely essential, however.

For me this state of learned helplessness seems to translate itself into this persistent negative ‘voice’ or pressure. At the worst of times – usually when I’m feeling stressed or unhappy – it will dominate, and I’ll feel flooded with feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and the strong urge to just give up. The more in control I feel, the weaker this presence gets, until it is no longer noticeable. This corresponds with the neurological and other studies performed on the topic.

Naturally I can keep struggling through this dilemma myself, and there’s a good chance that I’ll come out in one piece at the other end. The main self-sabotage issue one has to deal with here is that of struggling to engage with important tasks, which includes job applications, as these are about the most intense examples of needing to self-motivate and feel in control. If you’re stuck in a mood of helplessness, your assumption is that everybody doesn’t care about you anyway, and your struggles will not amount to anything. After a few of such experiences and inevitable rejections, the helplessness becomes accepted.

The focus on regaining and accepting control, of differentiating between fact and fiction are important factors in recovery, as is general stress reduction. Annoyingly, others seem to generally take the times when you got ‘sucked under’ by another struggle with your own brain as a sign that you’re not interested in their offered help and/or contact attempts. This ends up setting the conditions for yet another feedback loop in which the learned helplessness is reinforced, and with essentially no chance of recovery.

I feel that generally I am doing better these days, and learning more ways like these to quantify what is broken and how to at least patch it up is definitely helpful. Even so, it remains an ironic aspect of recovering from learned helplessness that to do so means accepting that one isn’t helpless. The conflict that this struggle induces is psychologically extremely draining, which makes stress-free days to recover even more essential to prevent regressions.

Anyway, how this will work out still remains to be seen. All I can do is to keep trying, obviously.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw0Onc2qQ5I
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness
[3] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325355

Leave a Reply