California Lawyers Association

To Empower Your Wellbeing in 2021, Recognize and Avoid Learned Helplessness

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Law.com in January 2021 and is republished here with permission. 

By Patrick Krill

Wanna get away? Given the state of the world around us, I will assume the answer is yes, so let’s hop in the mental time machine for a moment and chart a course for exactly one year ago, to January 2020. If you are like me—or most people—that might as well be a journey back to the Carolingian Empire given how distant, remote, and fully unfamiliar it seems. “Wait, was that even a thing?” you might be asking. Indeed, it was, and it was just 12 short months ago that many of us were looking ahead to 2020 with growing optimism, enthusiasm, and energy. 

Placing yourself back in that moment, you’ll recall that you were likely making plans for your life, your career, your family. You had goals and aspirations and timelines and, above all, a thoroughly convincing illusion of control over much of your existence. Then, as the saying goes, life came at us fast. 

Now as we embark on another journey around the sun that we all hope will burn us less severely than the last, we find ourselves saddled with extraordinary emotional baggage and a lot less fuel in the psychological tank. It is no surprise that Americans’ latest assessment of their mental health is worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades, or that many are expecting mental health to be one of the biggest pandemic issues we’ll face in 2021. 

If you or someone you know is one of the many people who has seen their mental health and well-being take a hit over the last year, now is the time to recognize and proactively disrupt one of the phenomena that may be to blame: learned helplessness. 

Essentially defined as the maladaptive passivity shown by animals and people following experience with uncontrollable events, learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and then stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they are able. Over time, they have “learned” or come to believe that they are helpless against the situation, and even though change may be possible, they stop trying to achieve it. 

If any of that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because we’ve been living through a continuous, negative, and uncontrollable situation for quite some time. Many people are feeling disempowered, disengaged, and depressed as a result. 

First identified as a psychological phenomenon in the late ’60s, learned helplessness has a bidirectional relationship—meaning it can emerge from and contribute to—depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It has also been shown to reduce rates of success in addiction treatment and make people more likely to use drugs again after treatment. During my time counseling lawyers in treatment, I frequently saw the manifestation of this phenomenon in patients who had previously struggled and failed to overcome their addictions. 

By causing an inability to make decisions or engage effectively in purposeful behavior, learned helplessness can result in a sort of demotivated, partially paralyzed state of resignation. It’s an awful feeling, but it is also beatable once we begin to recognize and acknowledge it in ourselves or others. In other words, we’ve got to “name it to tame it.” 

Nobody likes to think of themselves as helpless, especially not lawyers, law students, or any busy professional. As a result, some people may exhibit a reflexive dismissal or denial of the notion that they have fallen into the learned helplessness trap. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge when the signs of learned helplessness are present, and actively work to loosen the phenomenon’s insidious grip on our lives if we want to achieve a more robust and sustainable level of mental health and wellbeing. 

In the context of COVID-19, most people have found themselves stuck at home for months on end, disconnected from many of the things they would typically do to support their mental health and well-being, all the while feeling powerless over the events unfolding around them. Rather than remaining focused on the areas of our lives over which we do retain control, we’ve increasingly allowed our attention to be focused on all the distressing things that seem to be happening. Not to mention the pervasive messages swirling around have been consistently dispiriting: things are terrible, they may get worse, and there is not much you can do about it. 

Except, back in reality, there is in fact much that we can all do about how we are currently experiencing life. Uncovering those solutions starts with a close examination of our own thoughts and behaviors. This may require effort and motivation that doesn’t feel readily available, but trust me when I say that achieving escape velocity from the gravitational pull of your own negative thoughts will be one of the best things you can do to support your health and well-being this year. In fact, there has never been a better or more important time for all us of, as human beings, to reclaim some self-efficacy in our lives. 

On a practical level, this involves significantly reducing our exposure to negative, anxiety-inducing stimuli, including social media, negative people, and an excessive intake of news. It also involves simultaneously working to achieve a more optimistic mindset. If you think of learned helplessness as a form of emotional and psychological deconditioning, you can see how important it is to stem the influx of factors which have contributed to that deconditioning, while also working to affirmatively rehabilitate or recondition our outlook and mindset. Just as learned helplessness is a real thing, so is learned optimism, and there are many resources out there to help you embark upon that journey. 

Additionally, it is critical to pause and be mindful of your own negative self-talk or tendency to indulge automatic negative thoughts or cognitive distortions, such as jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing, and all-or-nothing thinking. Improving your self-awareness through journaling, therapy, or meditation can be an important step to help you spot these types of thinking errors, a necessary predicate to challenging and ultimately defeating them. 

Finally, focusing on self-care, setting achievable and measurable goals around improving your well-being, and developing the skills you need to navigate the daily stresses of life more effectively are all ways to recover our sense of self, to unlearn our helplessness and grow towards a better and healthier year ahead. That’s one thing I’ll bet we could all agree would be pretty great. 

Patrick Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information. He is also a member of Law.com’s Minds Over Matters advisory board. 

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