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Learned helplessness

German: Erlernte Hilflosigkeit

1 Definition

The term learned helplessness is used to describe the result of unavoidable, uncontrollable and repeated aversive stimuli to an individual. Many affected people are deeply convinced that they will not be able to prevent situations that are inconvenient or harmful to them, even though there are no objective reasons justifying this notion. Learned helplessness is considered one explanation for the development and maintenance of depression.

2 History

The term was coined in 1967 by American psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman. He used it to describe behavioral disorders in animals that showed depression-like symptoms, and then transferred the concept to humans. He first discovered this phenomenon in dogs which were subjected to electric shocks. His experiments showed that stress can cause depression.

3 Symptoms

Lack of motivation, sustained lethargy and phlegmatic or sometimes apathetic behavior are common with this disorder. Further symptoms are sleep disorders and a weakened immune system.

4 Interpretation

The thought process of people suffering from learned helplessness can be summarized like this:

  • They consider themselves the main problem, not taking into account the role of external circumstances (self-blame)
  • The problem is considered omnipresent and does not only occur under certain circumstances (pervasiveness).
  • They see the problem as permanent rather than temporary (permanence).

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