Learned helplessness

In education, there is a theory that talks about “learned helplessness” (actually it is behaviorist psychology).

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action. ~ Kendra Cherry

Although this idea is presented as something that happens with animal behavior, it also happens in humans – and especially in patients. I find it in myself at times. I complain about an persistent ache or pain (interesting choice of words – complain rather than report – it is in part how I am made to feel when my aches and pains are dismissed). My doctors don’t know what to do about it, so they ignore it. Somehow, this translates in my mind to it being something that cannot be fixed – something that I need to just suffer through. After reporting the pain to many different doctors, I exhibit learned helplessness. I feel like there is nothing that can be done, so I stop trying. I stop reporting the the aches and pains. They don’t go away, I just stop telling the doctors about it – because I’ve learned that they cannot do anything about it. I’ve learned helplessness.

  • Becky


  • Sometimes I think it isn’t a case of not being able to do something on the part of the doctors. They get saturated with having to care and put on armor to protect themselves. My doctors avoid any sort of situations involving emotions. You can feel it the way they talk to you like you are not quite there. They aren’t responding to your words, they’re reading from a script or maybe you walked onto the wrong set and this isn’t the movie you belong in?

    For me it’s learned hopelessness. I go in for the scans and blood tests but don’t waste the specialist’s time (and mine) by going to their offices any more. Nothing I say is heard so I just let them read the charts.

    Have learned one thing. Since doctors seem to particularly bad with people I find if I go directly to the ambulance first and they are particularly good at spotting illness. They are trained differently than doctors.

  • In remission after the entire year of getting through treatments. A friend pointed me towards your blog. Best wishes to you Becky. Leigh

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