Unlearning Helplessness

Unlearning helplessness is an important task for those suffering from depression.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is the one treatment of depression. To break up the habits of thoughts in one’s own helplessness and worthlessness that so easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Seligman asked the question whether there is such a thing as learned optimism – if learned helplessness exists. (Seligman 1990)

Seligman’s choice of experiment was kindergarten children with symptoms of depression. Children who had tested at high risk for developing depression met for regular cognitive therapy sessions for three months. At each meeting, a psychology graduate student took them through the steps of a therapy to fix explanatory style aimed at cognition – or how they thought about things. The typical directions of these thoughts are 1) that positive things happen despite one’s efforts, while 2) negative things are one’s own fault.

The foundation of cognitive theory of depression according to the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, Aaron Beck, is that a person may be prone to depression because they have dysfunctional beliefs. (Beck 1995) These beliefs may be latent for years, but environmental factors like stress can trigger a depressive episode. Dysfunctional beliefs are usually those about being helpless or unlovable, and are incorporated in mental models that are used to interpret experiences. In order to alleviate depression, the dysfunctional beliefs have to be challenged, dismissed, and replaced by more constructive interpretations of experiences.

The cognitive program taught the children to identify when they were having negative thoughts, to evaluate those thoughts objectively, and then to come up with alternatives. It also had them reframe any pessimistic explanations that they found themselves giving (my mom is sad, because I did something wrong) for more optimistic and realistic ones (my mom is sad, because she had a long day at work). The positive results of therapy allowed for a degree of unlearning the damaging thought patterns of helplessness associated with depression. (Hoeksema – Girgus – Seligman 1986:441)

Seligman considers himself to be not the expert of learned helplessness but the positive psychology he developed based on his findings. The study of not learned helplessness but that of empowerment and control.

There is an evident need to change the underlying explanatory style if we are to fix helplessness on a societal level. Empowerment depends on it. One interesting experiment into internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy to treat low levels of depression in adults (Spek 2007) conducted meta-analysis if therapeutic use of the internet and it provides insights into the possibility of broad intervention techniques.

It is furthermore important to note that similarly to distrust (in competence or morals) it is impossible to tell whether a behaviour is a result of apathy or lack of motivation. Inaction may come from the inability to fix a problem, or the sense of helplessness (from resignation, apathy, or distrust). The consequences (and the rationalisations) are identical.

(This chapter is a work in progress.) 



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