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How to Reverse Learned Helplessness

It seems like more and more people are dealing with feelings of helplessness. Not only are more people struggling with these feelings, they’re dealing with them on incredibly intense levels.

Because these feelings are so powerful, many are turning to their doctors for drugs. Back in 2011, Time magazine reported that the use of antidepressants has increased by 400% since 1988 [1]. And the Chicago Tribune reports that just in the past 15 years, the rate has gone up by 65% [2].

Those numbers are absolutely astounding.

Are drugs the only way people can cope with feelings of helplessness?

Actually, according to new research, people can overcome what’s been deemed “learned helplessness.” What is this? And what is the key to overcoming learned helplessness?

What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Is It So Prevalent

Feelings of helplessness are often quickly diagnosed as depression. While this might be the case, in many instances the real issue is learned helplessness.

How do people learn helplessness?

It can develop for a variety of reasons, but in many instances, this is a learned behavior or thought process that develops when a person has been involved in a toxic, abusive relationship.

These can be relationships that people had in childhood or romantic relationships they’ve had in their adult life. Either way, the emotional trauma of the situation leaves them feeling helpless and stuck – like there’s no way to get out of their present circumstances and live a happy life.

If a person doesn’t take steps to overcome these feelings, they can easily end up drifting down into deep despair.

This level of helplessness can make them lose interest in goals and activities they once enjoyed or even loved. They may feel so powerless that they give up the pursuit of their dreams, whether it’s the dream of an interesting and successful career or the dream of getting married and having a family.

Learned helplessness is extremely prevalent these days. And there are many reasons for this. The political climate in the world is very angry and divisive right now. There are more major natural disasters. More people are facing financial hardship since the 2008 recession.

And according to The Independent, narcissism is on the rise [3], which means more people are likely to end up in a relationship with a narcissist. This is one of the most damaging relationships a person can be in, and one that often results in learned helplessness.

Thankfully, overcoming learned helplessness isn’t impossible.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness with Learned Optimism

For anyone who has been a victim of some type of abuse, the idea of overcoming feelings of helplessness almost seems laughable. It feels like the helplessness is so ingrained that it’s just something that will always be with them.

But with something called learned optimism, feelings of helplessness – even intense ones – can be overcome.

What is learned optimism?

First of all, it’s important to understand what learned optimism isn’t. This type of optimism isn’t using positive affirmations to overcome a difficult situation. While positive affirmations have their place – much more is needed to overcome deep-seated feelings of helplessness.

Learned optimism is a way of training the brain to think differently, to see the possibilities of good ahead.

Learning to think more optimistically will not happen overnight. It definitely takes some practice, but with time improvement can be seen.

The most important thing to remember when trying to think optimistically is to be mindful. Instead of just getting bombarded with negative feelings, it’s important to try and catch the negative feelings when they first begin.

When a person does this, they’re able to find their triggers – those activities, people, or circumstances that make them feel negative and helpless.

As soon as a person starts experiencing those feelings, it’s vital to re-route the internal conversation. Instead of letting a negative feeling escalate to feeling completely helpless, the person needs to talk to themselves in a more positive way.

For example, instead of getting down on themselves for making a mistake or for something bad happening, people should tell themselves that what they’ve experienced is unfortunate but it doesn’t have a bearing on their worth. And it definitely doesn’t mean things can’t get better.

The Key Is Neuroplasticity and Brain Re-Wiring

The whole concept of learned optimism is based on what’s known as neuroplasticity. According to, neuroplasticity is the “brain’s ability to reorganize itself”[4] and to heal from injury – whether physical or emotional.

In the past, it was thought that a person who experienced helplessness or depression was just “made that way.” Granted, there’s a lot that can be said regarding chemical imbalances. But that’s another subject entirely.

Just because a person has chronic negative feelings doesn’t mean they’re doomed to those feelings for life. The brain can be re-wired or re-trained to start experiencing life in a more mindful and positive way.

The brain is an amazing and powerful machine. It should be utilized fully. And one of the best ways a person can do that is by learning to be mindful of when negative emotions arise, and then “changing the record” – or changing the message they have in response.

Instead of using stress or negative emotions as an excuse to give up, positive thinking moves them to discover new ways of dealing with stressors and steps to take to reach their goals.

Positive Thinking Is Not a Cliché – It’s What We Need for a Happier Life

At first, the idea of overcoming feelings of helplessness with positive thinking may seem like the most cliché thought of all time. The reality is, though, that learned optimism – in other words, positive thinking – is a necessity for overcoming negative feelings and living a happy life.

Attempting to think positively when a person feels so helpless may seem impossible. But with practice and support, it can be done successfully.

People are stronger than they think. And if they’re willing to fight through the obstacles, they will soon see that viewing life through more optimistic eyes is a key to living a happy, emotionally healthy existence.


[1] @maiasz, M. S. (2011, October 20). What Does a 400% Increase in Antidepressant Use Really Mean? Retrieved September 21, 2017, from

[2] Mundell, E. (2017, August 17). Antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years. Retrieved September 22, 2017, from

[3] Remes, O. (2016, March 11). Narcissism: The science behind the rise of a modern ‘epidemic’. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from

[4] Medical Definition of Neuroplasticity. (n.d.). Retrieved October 01, 2017, from

How to Reverse Learned Helplessness

Kim Saeed - Author, Researcher, Educator

Kim Saeed is an internationally respected self-help author and educator specializing in recovery and rebuilding after narcissistic abuse. She is the author of two Kindle bestsellers, How to Do No Contact Like a Boss! and 10 Essential Survivor Secrets to Liberate Yourself from Narcissistic Abuse. She is also writing an upcoming book, The Way of the Warrior, for Balboa Press, a division of Hay House.

Kim is a credentialed educator with a background in psychology, education, research and development, and organizational development. Her work has been shared in non-profit women's shelters and lauded by therapists and mental health experts. If you struggle and have a hard time, consider enrollment in The Essential Break Free Bootcamp.

You can find Kim’s work and sign up for her newsletter at

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APA Reference
, . (2017). How to Reverse Learned Helplessness. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Oct 2017
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