Skip to main content

Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension & Caregiver

(Third article of three-part series on caregiver helplessness.)

Helplessness is a feeling many care receivers and caregivers experience when both are dealing with a chronic or life threating disease, especially when there is a lot of distress. Exploring helplessness enabled me to gain a better understanding of the emotions associated with helplessness and possible coping strategies.  I discovered three types of helplessness so I’ll address each one separately in this helplessness series including:

      1. Are you feeling helpless as a caregiver? The first article discusses the emotions and physical distress a caregiver experiences when there is nothing, they can do to change the situation of their care receiver.
      2. Are you making your care receiver feel helpless? The second article discusses how caregivers enable their care receiver making them dependent and possibility feeling helpless.
      3. What is “learned helplessness?” The third article discusses a condition in which caregivers and care receivers learn to be helpless when exposed to stressful situations repeatedly.

This is the last (third) article of the helplessness series and addresses “learned helplessness.”  I had heard a little about “learned helplessness” but wasn’t sure how it would relate to family caregiving. My exploration process confirmed that individuals with cancer or other long-term illnesses and their caregivers can and do experience “learned helplessness.” Care receivers are prone to “learned helplessness” because they are continually hearing bad news, experiencing medical complications and feeling stressed about their life and how it has and will change.

“Learned helplessness,” according to the American Psychological Association occurs when an individual repeatedly faces uncontrollable stressful situations and does not take control even when an opportunity arises. In essence they have learned they are helpless and have given up trying to change their situation even if they could. “Learned helplessness” is “learned” through life experiences and can be learned at any time. Being abused, told you are worthless or dumb, labeled with a “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal,” illness, or thinking you can’t change a bad habit such as smoking, drinking, or eating unhealthily are examples of life situations which can over time cause “learned helplessness.”

Types of “Learned Helplessness”

There are two types of “learned helplessness.” One is universal helplessness which happens when an individual believes there is nothing that anyone can do to change their unfortunate circumstances. Personal helplessness is when an individual has possible solutions to change their situation but feels they aren’t for them or they won’t work so why try. A cancer patient knows there are ways to stop other peoples’ pain but none of them will work for him/her. So, they don’t do anything to change or stop their pain even though there are possible solutions. They have learned from past experiences over time that nothing will work for them and they feel helpless.

How one views life can hinder or protect against “learned helplessness.” Is the individual mostly a negative or positive person? Individuals who are negative or pessimistic see life’s bad events as permanent, pervasive and personal. They view the negative event as affecting everything in their life causing them to experience helplessness and depression more often than positive or optimistic individuals. Positive or optimistic individuals see life events as temporary, specific and not personal. They are open to exploring possible solutions.

How Can You Unlearn “Learned Helplessness?”

“Learned helplessness” isn’t a life sentence for you or your care receiver. There are ways to unlearn “learned helplessness” and it is never too late to start the changing process. Keep in mind “learned helplessness” didn’t happen overnight so it will take time and perseverance to end it.  Sometimes the help of a professional can be beneficial. If you or your care receiver have a tendency to use negative self-talk look for ways to change to positive self-talk. We are our own worst critics; we remember our downfalls and errors and forget or don’t acknowledge the positive things we do. A step-by-step plan developed by S.J. Scott can help you or your care receiver unlearn “learned helplessness.” Steps include:

  1. Identify and accept “learned helplessness” if it is in your life. Think about your life and what life events caused you to feel helpless. Is there more than one life event that caused you to feel helpless? What is common in all of them? You may discover that you have had helpless feelings for a long time but didn’t know what it was, or you may find that your current situation is what has caused your feelings of helplessness.
  2. How do you think about yourself—mostly negative or positive? Negative beliefs are poison and will lead you to thinking you are a negative person. Overcome these negative thoughts and beliefs of yourself by looking for examples of when you contradicted your negative thoughts. An example could be you believe you are not a good friend yet last week you went out of your way to wish a colleague a happy birthday and you called another person to congratulate them on becoming a grandfather. You have proof that your thoughts of not being a good friend are false and untrue. Use this process with your other negative beliefs.
  3. How do you talk to yourself? Listen to yourself (inner voices) and see if your self-talk is negative or positive. If you have a tendency to use negative self-talk look for ways to change it to positive self-talk. We are our worst critics as we remember our downfalls and errors and forget or don’t acknowledge the positive things we do. When you discover your negative self-talk, ask yourself if that belief or self-talk is helpful to you? Is it true? Is there a way to do it better next time? Use problem-solving questions so you can be creative in finding ways to change your negative beliefs about yourself into positive beliefs and thoughts.
  4. Create opportunities to improve your self-awareness. Many individuals find journaling effective in discovering why they have the beliefs they do. There are basically two ways to journal. One is starting with a blank page and writing down your thoughts. The second, is to use questions or exercises which help you explore your thoughts through self-reflection. Gratitude journaling (where you log what your thankful for or appreciate) has been found to increase an individual’s happiness. There are numerous websites on journaling if you would like additional information on types and ways of journaling.
  5. Set specific goals. Goals that can be measured, attainable, realistic and time sensitive help maintain control and assure you will be successful. A specific goal example is: I will post in my gratitude journal every night before bed one positive thing, or something I am thankful for. It will take time to create specific goals but when you achieve them you will be inspired to continue because of your success.
  6. Change your environment so it helps you reach your goal. If there are physical spaces, people or objects that cause you to feel or be negative avoid them. If your goal is to take care of yourself and there are individuals who have unrealistic expectations of what can be done as a caregiver then avoid them or create a system for you to ignore their comments. If your kitchen is full of unhealthy snacks clean them out and replace with healthy ones so you aren’t tempted. Think about what is hindering you from reaching your goals and figure out ways to avoid them.
  7. Do one small task a day. Making changes isn’t easy because our old habits die slowly. Look at your goal and determine what small things you can do to help reach your goal. These small steps will make you feel as if you are working toward achieving that goal.  Examples of small tasks related to journaling are; purchasing the journal, putting the journal near your bed with a pen, setting your alarm so you go to bed or get up 10 minutes early to write in your journal or while eating lunch think about your day and what has been positive. These small tasks will help you achieve your goal.
  8. Celebrate and acknowledge small wins. It’s like learning to walk—one small step at a time but eventually you can walk. Celebrate each step along the way as it is a symbol of you making progress and being successful in achieving your goal!
  9. Practice self-care. No one can take care of you but yourself. That means caring for your physical, emotional and spiritual needs. By caring for yourself you avoid feeling helpless and can deal with anything put before you in your caregiving journey. The longer you practice self-care the more your confidence will build, and you will not feel helpless.

“Learned helplessness” is an emotion learned through the experience of continual distress but can be unlearned. There will be many opportunities for caregivers and care receivers to feel helplessness but they can avoid “learned helplessness” by understanding what it is, how it controls them, and ways to unlearn it.


APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2020, from American Psychological Association.

Cherry, K. (2020, June 7). What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen? Retrieved June 15, 2020, from Verywell Mind.

Joan K. Monin, R. S. (2009, September). Interpersonal Effects of Suffering in Older Adult Caregiving Relationships.doi: 10.1037/a0016355

Rankin, L. (2013). Have You Learned Helplessness As A Patient? Retrieved May 9, 2020, from Lissa Rankin, MD.

Scott, S. J. (2020, February 28). What is Learned Helplessness? and a Stept-by-Step Plan for Overcoming It. Retrieved May 10, 2020, from Develop Good Habits: What is Learned Helplessness? and a Step-by-Step Plan for Overcoming It.

Timothy, J. L. (2019, May 31). What is learned helplessness? Retrieved May 8, 2020, from Medical News Today.