Many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) continue to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by historical and current traumatic events, which can lead to learned helplessness, meaning they may passively accept their outcomes without putting up a fight.1 There are a number of resources available to help people overcome learned helplessness, including therapy, community events, and cultural groups.
What Is Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness occurs when people are repeatedly exposed to trauma, and all attempts they make to fight or challenge their situation are unsuccessful, regardless of how much effort they put in.2 This can lead to feeling like they don’t have control over their lives, so they “learn” to be helpless by association. People who are repeatedly exposed to uncontrollable stressors become so overwhelmed with their experiences that they lose motivation to change their situation and passively accept the status quo.3
As people continue to experience that they cannot control the outcome of a traumatic situation, they will stop trying–leading to feelings of helplessness.1 To test the concept of learned helplessness, Seligman & Maier conducted experiments to explain with dogs.4 They placed two groups of dogs in two different chambers: one of the chambers allowed the dogs to escape the electric shocks, while the other did not.
The dogs who did not have an escape exit could not learn how to escape, even after being put in a chamber that had an escape route. The dogs who had been repeatedly unsuccessful in escaping previously lacked motivation to look for an escape route, due to their prior experience that there was a way of escape.4 Even though this experiment was performed on animals, it illustrated just how learned helplessness can occur in humans.
How Does Learned Helplessness Affect BIPOC?
Most people in BIPOC communities continue to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by historical and present-day traumatic events motivated by racial or ethnic discrimination. Consistent racial oppression and exposure to racial trauma, coupled with multiple unsuccessful efforts to create change, can create the belief that adverse events are out of one’s control, regardless of any effort, resources, or motivations, known as learned helplessness.1,2,3
Consequently, these individuals start to feel powerless and generalize this helpless behavior to all; they may also feel as if they can’t prevent negative events from occurring.4,6 There are many factors that lead to learned helplessness, including repeated exposure to collective trauma, intergenerational trauma, and perceived or actual lack of control over their circumstances.
In addition, the effects of trauma and learned helplessness in the BIPOC community have been associated with an increase in stress-induced diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions.5 Prolonged exposure to racial trauma not only impacts physical health conditions, but can also result in negative coping skills.7,8
How Learned Helplessness Affects BIPOC Mental Health
Learned helplessness in BIPOC communities in often leads to symptoms of depression and long-term psychological damage, including memory loss and trauma to the brain.5 This helplessness and hopelessness can manifest in different types of anger, pessimism, paranoia, frustration, and other negative emotions.
Some effects learned helplessness has on BIPOC mental health include:8,9,10,11,12,13,14
When people continuously find themselves in uncontrollable situations that cause them physical or emotional harm, it often leads to feelings of helplessness and depression. If individuals are more innately passive or unmotivated, they are more likely to fall into bouts of depression and learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness can manifest in many ways, particularly in behavioral problems, such as anger and self-harm. Studies have shown that ongoing discrimination increases the chances that African Americans will respond aggressively or engage in violent or delinquent behaviors. Behavioral problems can occur as a reactive attempt to feel in control.
Anxiety & Stress
In addition to racial stress, depression, and behavioral disorders, anxiety and low self-esteem are also exacerbated by learned helplessness. People can feel so victimized by always having barriers to progress that the thought of trying to change things can make them anxious. They may even develop anxiety and stress disorders, such as social anxiety and C-PTSD.
Attempting and failing to change situations that may ultimately result in additional disappointment, trauma, and negative self-image. For example, students with poor academic success who experience learned helplessness put very little effort in trying to succeed, because they have grown accustomed to the same negative outcome. Learned helplessness can increase self-doubt, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence, based on past experiences.
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Ways to Overcome Learned Helplessness in BIPOC Communities
It can feel difficult to overcome hopelessness and learned helplessness, but there are multiple professional and self-help resources and techniques aimed at teaching effective self-care, reducing negative feelings, and improving coping mechanisms. This can include a mix of trauma-informed treatment, support groups, social support, and further immersion into the BIPOC communities.
Seeking trauma-informed therapy can help those who suffer from learned helplessness could benefit from seeing a therapist that specializes in trauma care. Trauma-informed care may include a mix of therapeutic interventions, group therapy, and medication. It may be helpful to find a support group of BIPOC individuals dealing with trauma.
People who are trying to overcome learned helplessness would greatly benefit from additional social support systems. Having good support when facing ongoing adversity can decrease the likelihood of aggression, anger, and violent behaviors by providing a positive outlet for emotional support.11
Many people in the BIPOC community who struggle with learned helplessness have encountered discrimination so often that they may question their self-worth or self-esteem. Learning about all the contributions their community has made can help people remain confident in their heritage.
When individuals have an opportunity to see people in their culture well represented in daily life, it can give them hope and a sense of pride in themselves.16 Seeing others who share the same racial/ethnic background overcome obstacles can give hope to those who are still trying to do the same. Cultural alertness and cultural pride are key elements to helping people overcome racial trauma.14
When to Get Professional Help
People dealing with learned helplessness in BIPOC communities often experience overwhelming thoughts, lack of motivation, increased aggression, and mental health concerns. If not treated, these symptoms could worsen over time and interfere with daily functioning. Seeking professional help will not be able to make all of the negative effects disappear, but it will aid in learning and using coping healthy mechanisms during times of distress.
During therapy, individuals can work through their negative feelings and emotions associated with learned helplessness. In addition to individual therapy, there may also be opportunities to engage in family therapy and/or group therapy with other individuals who are dealing with similar experiences. Family therapy can also be used for family members to talk through collective trauma they have gone through together.
People struggling with trauma and learned helplessness may benefit from different approaches, including:
- Trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT)
- DBT for PTSD
- EMDR for PTSD
- Hypnosis for PTSD
- Narrative exposure therapy
It may also be important for clients to find a therapist that understands the complex issue of learned helplessness in BIPOC communities, such as a Black or Latinx therapist. If you need help finding and choosing a Black therapist, for example, an online therapist directory allows you to filter by specialty, demographic information, and insurance coverage.
Learned helplessness can be a common response to repeated, pervasive racial trauma, so if you have experienced the impact of this as a BIPOC, you are not alone. Connecting with a trauma-informed therapist, finding a support group, and practicing gratitude and pride in who you are can help in overcoming this issue. It can be difficult to deal with this type of trauma, so remember that there is help out there if and when you need it!