Gaining Back Control


Illustration by: Samantha Gordon

The dog has an open door, which he can escape through, but thinks he cannot. Like the dog, many people tend to get trapped in the cycle of learned helplessness.

Lola Mull, Copy Editor

Picture this: a dog being mercilessly shocked, over and over again, not even knowing that it could take just a few steps to freedom. It may sound horrifying, but it is a common phenomenon called Learned Helplessness, and it afflicts teenagers in every school across the globe. It can be devastating to mental health, and is an underlying cause of stress and depression. Learned helplessness is the belief that one is incapable of succeeding, or has little-to-no control over their environment and its factors, leading to a negative outlook and repeated failures. 

    A student performs poorly on the test, studies to retake it, and performs poorly again. A student asks questions again and again, gets tutoring, and stays after school in an attempt to clear up their understanding of a certain subject, but nothing works. A student has multiple higher level classes, and they become overwhelmed with the heavy workload; they are unable to finish all of their homework, their grades start to slip, but there is nothing they can do and just not enough hours in the day. Sound familiar? As growing and developing individuals, this phenomenon is extremely relevant to students. Grades and performance in school matters, and this can sometimes be a trap for learned helplessness. Experiencing this leads to anxiety and depression, which is increasingly detrimental, not only to their health and happiness, but also increases the failures experienced in school and other performance-based aspects of life. 

    An experiment first done by Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier in 1967 showcases how this works. Using classical conditioning, a trapped dog learned to associate a specific sound with receiving an electrical shock from the floor underneath them that they had no way of stopping. They were then placed in a crate, with one side electrified, and the other perfectly safe, separated by a small barrier. The dogs that had been previously conditioned and exposed to the “inescapable” electric shocks were placed on the side that was electrified. They then made no attempt to move to the other side, and instead gave up, letting themselves be subjected to the shocks.

   ”With school sometimes I felt like no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t pull off good grades. And then I just stopped trying, and I dug myself into a hole,” Vasa Weinstein, a senior, explained. In addition to how it affected her mental health, she continued ”I just let it take over my life, and I couldn’t fight back no matter how hard I tried… anything I did didn’t help.” But, as with the experiments with the dogs, they could have just stepped over the barrier, “Stepping back from it and realizing… I can control what’s going on, and if I can’t… let that go, and figure out what I can control, then work on doing that.”

   ”AP Chem is labeled as one of the hardest AP classes. From what my friends had told me, based on their experiences, you are not going to have a good time and you are not going to do well. I just accepted that and I didn’t do much on my part to combat that expectation. Holding that preconceived notion about it being a hard class and the fact that no matter how hard I tried I wouldn’t get the results I wanted prevented me from taking action and making the most of the class,” said Ananya Kamath, also a senior, highlighting her own experience.

Holding that preconceived notion about it being a hard class and the fact that no matter how hard I tried I wouldn’t get the results I wanted prevented me from taking action and making the most of the class”

— Anaya Kamath

    How to combat learned helplessness? Communicate. If an individual is aware that they or someone else is starting to experience a sense of hopelessness or a predetermined outcome, there is a relatively straightforward way of reversing these beliefs and changing the outcome. Taking a step back and realizing that there is always something that can be done to change an individual’s own outcome is the first step. Instead of giving up, the approach to the solution will have to change. Reach out to friends, peers, mentors, and teachers. These are the resources that have the ability to help a student’s beliefs, knowledge, and plan of action going forward. Reaching out for help and communicating is not a sign of weakness, but it can be a sign of strength and success, and will overall positively affect mental health.  Grand Ledge has a unique feature that especially aides in situations like these: the help rooms. These are available for every student to communicate what they are going through and to get the necessary help and support going forward.