Trauma, Depression and Learned Helplessness


If we suffered a traumatic childhood in which we felt powerless to change our situation for the better, we may have become conditioned to believe that there is no point in trying to improve our situation in life as any such attempt will inevitably be doomed to failure. Such a state of mind, one of the hallmarks of clinical depression, has been termed ‘learned helplessness’ by psychologists. If we are suffering from learned helplessness, we will lack motivation to create positive change even when it is clearly possible to do so from an objective perspective.

The following experiment, involving dogs, helps to illustrate precisely what psychologists mean by the condition of learned helplessness. It is a controversial experiment which is ethically questionable and I do not think I would feel comfortable carrying out such a research activity myself. However, here are the findings :


The experiment, part of a research study by Martin Seligman, was carried out in the 1960s and involved two sets of dogs. Both sets of dogs were given electric shocks ; however :

– one group of dogs could stop the pain by learning to press a lever

– the other group of dogs could not escape the pain whatever they did


After this unpleasant experience, BOTH groups of dogs were placed in shuttle box with two sides separated by a short barrier. Again, electric shocks were applied through the floor in the cage. This time, however, IT WAS POSSIBLE FOR BOTH SETS OF DOGS TO ESCAPE THE PAIN by jumping over the short barrier to the other (safe) side of the box.


– the first group of dogs (who had control in the first phase of the experiment by being able to press the lever to stop the shocks) learned to avoid the pain by jumping the barrier in phase 2.


– the second set of dogs (who had no control over the electric shocks in the first phase of the experiment) failed to avoid the punishment (they did not learn they could do so by jumping the barrier) in phase 2.

It is thought, in the same way, that if as children we have been in traumatic situations over extended time periods that we were unable to escape, as adults we might become, like the second group of dogs in the experiment, despondent, depressed and unable to try to help ourselves.

However, also like the second set of dogs in the experiment, we may falsely believe we can’t help ourselves (due to our past experiences) when, in fact, we can – it can be our depressed and helpless frame of mind, formed in our childhoods, that creates the illusion that there is no way out for us when, in fact, there is.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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