Working Through Learned Helplessness

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Reader’s Question

Is depression a coping pattern I learned growing up?

Growing up (and still today) my father dominated and controlled…and I had no power. He will always overrule, no matter what I say or do. To cope, I’d just ‘check out’ emotionally.

I think I learned early on that there is no point in trying anything, because I am powerless. Also, I think I learned the feeling that no situation can be fixed. There is no point in reacting to him because nothing changes.

Now I’m old enough that I should be free of this, but I continually have deep depression to the point of suicide. I wonder if the depression is just me ‘repressing’ myself, like I did for the first 18 years. And, now that I’m free of him, why would I continue this pattern? Why am I not just excited to be free?

Psychologist’s Reply

Yes, depression very definitely could be a coping pattern that allowed you to get through what sounds like a very difficult childhood. There are many theories behind the cause of depression, from anger being turned inward, to neurochemical explanations, but what seems to best describe your experience is a concept called learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness theory is the idea that depression and other mental illnesses may occur when someone experiences a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. For example, you may have learned early in your life that no matter what you did, your father would have control over what you did. Thus, you gave up trying (so you wouldn’t constantly be disappointed or angry), and have taken that coping skill with you into adulthood. While this is understandable, learned helplessness is not healthy later in life, and people who suffer from this often experience physical, emotional and social problems.

Treatment for learned helplessness (and depression) can include cognitive restructuring. The first step in this restructuring involves the realization that you do indeed have control over certain things and, in fact, you always did (although it would be difficult for a child to understand this without adult assistance). They may seem like small measures of power, but you did and do have control over your thoughts, emotions and behavior. One of the best ways I’ve heard this described was from Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian psychologist who survived two concentration camps. While in the camps, Bettelheim discovered that even within the most extreme environment imaginable, people still found ways to be in control of themselves, and those who did tended to survive longer. These people made up their minds how they were going to behave and then informed their heart of their intentions. This gave them power and you can do the same.

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Although it may be difficult, people can decide that they will perform the actions necessary to alleviate the symptoms of depression. They can eat well, exercise and find the mental health treatment they need. That can include anything from workbooks and support groups to going to counseling. Such a road will be long and filled with challenges. It will take determination and it probably will involve not getting the results you want right away, but with persistence, it can be done. Your father controlled you as a child. Do not let him control you forever.

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