Why Shraddha Couldn’t Leave? – A Lesson of Learned Helplessness

learned helplessness

What is Learned Helplessness?

The American Psychological Association defines “learned helplessness” as a state of existence where an individual may not exercise control over or change their situation, even if they might have a chance to. This “learning” occurs when a person has repeatedly faced stressful situations that might have seemed out of control at the time. Psychologist Martin Seligman states that a person experiencing “learned helplessness” may become passive in the face of difficult or traumatic situations. Further, they might feel pessimistic or give up any hope of making any change or exercising any control over the situation. Seligman says that the stress levels of such people might also be more pronounced.

How Learned Helplessness Prevents A Person From Leaving A Toxic Situation?

Various news sources reported the case of Shraddha Walker’s murder by her own live-in partner, Aftab Poonawalla. Many voices echoed in unison, asking the same question, why did she not leave? Sources quoted her friends as saying, “She wanted to leave him but couldn’t do so”, and “It had become very difficult for her to come out of that relationship…” 

Let’s understand her difficulty, and that of many others in similar situations with a small experiment.

Source: Wikipedia 

An experiment was conducted in 1967 by famous Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier to understand similar behaviour of giving up. They gave dogs a mild electric shock; some of the dogs had a lever to press that could stop the shock, while others didn’t have any such lever. In a follow-up experiment, the same dogs could escape the shock by jumping over a barrier. The dogs from the previous experiment who had a lever to stop the shocks jumped over the barrier this time as well, to save themselves from the shock. However, surprisingly, the dogs who did not have that control in the previous experiment found themselves helpless even now, when all they needed to do to escape the shock was jump over the barrier. 

This experiment highlighted the phenomenon of “learned helplessness,” where, if an individual is exposed to situations out of their control, they might not be able to practice control or make a change, even when they have an option. They will learn that they’re helpless in the face of a toxic situation.

Such a state of helplessness will further put them in a state where it might never occur to them to ask for help, or they might find it extremely difficult to ask for help. They may feel they have no control over the situation and just need to bear with it. It can further result in low self-esteem for such an individual, which again convinces them that they cannot do anything about the situation at hand. Prolonged exposure to difficult situations may also end up with the individual becoming very passive, giving up easily on other tasks, and also showing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Is There A Way Out?

Learned Helplessness

All is not lost for people who might find themselves in similar situations. At an individual level, merely engaging in physical activity or exercise has been shown to help a person come out of a state of learned helplessness. Setting goals and smaller tasks can help. Receiving social and emotional support, persistently, can help the individual deal with feelings of isolation and helplessness. Therapy has proven effective in overcoming a state of learned helplessness. A therapist can help the individual explore resources and options they might have to regain control of their lives. CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, helps in gaining more control over how an individual might assess their situation, and their thoughts and actions. 

If you’ve noticed one or more of the above signs and would like to address them, it might be a good idea to seek professional help from our counselors. Our in-house therapists will help you further identify your needs and triggers and assist you in locating mechanisms and strategies that work for you in the short & long run.

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