Learned Helplessness: insects, frogs and oppossums do it, do you?

Posted on September 16, 2020 by Categories: News

It’s the ultimate form of learned helplessness, the scientific name is thanatosis. People call this ‘playing possum’ too, because opossums do it (they enter into a catatonic state that resembles death) and it’s widespread in the animal kingdom.


It’s not hard to see that it’s a great adaptive behaviour if you’re sure that your capture by a predator is inevitable.


Learned helplessness in humans, however, is maladaptive, yet easily and insidiously emerges.


Let me give you a very short quiz, a quick task and you’ll see what I mean . This is a game that Dr Charisse Nixon of Penn State University developed; here goes:


Give yourself 5 seconds or so to solve these anagrams. If you can’t solve it, no worries, just move onto the next word:


  1. WHIRL


Now, how did you do?


So, Dr Nixon, usually gives one half of her class these words and, unknown to the class, the other half get these words:


  1. BAT
  2. LEMON


Now, for the first set, it’s a bit naughty, but the first two words are unsolvable, there are no anagrams! But CINERAMA can be transformed into Americana. Did you give up after WHIRL? Did you spend even less time on SLAPSTICK? Did you even get to the solvable CINERAMA?! That’s how learned helplessness starts to work.


Now, in Dr Nixon’s class, she takes one word at a time, each student looks at word number 1. Of course, the other half of the group have BAT. When she asks for a show of hands of who has done the anagram, half the class confidently know they have TAB. The other half with WHIRL look on in amazement and maybe a little envy.


Far more people in the BAT group complete CINERAMA than in the induced helplessness WHIRL group and you can probably see and feel why.


Once a person has learned helplessness, whether it originated in an illness such as diabetes or whether from abuse or from depression or simply as a personality trait, it might seem logical that resilience coaching would help to alleviate it.


This is not the case; learned helplessness needs an overhaul of self-kindness, self-compassion and self-love. Resilience tends to aid in creating more helplessness as we begin to accept failure more widely.



Self-love, self-compassion and self-kindness begin with simple changes such as knowing which distractions lift your mood.


For me, it’s horses, anything to do with horses, riding and going to see my horse. I love simple walks, especially in the countryside, I love watching box-sets and I adore the sea. I love moorlands in the wind and rain.


For others, it’s music or running, doing some yoga or gardening. It doesn’t matter what, just decide what your distractions are and add ‘self-kindness’ to your diary – yes, actually schedule it. Then do it.


If you already have a set of distractions that you can go to, schedule and do easily, it’s simpler than being in a helpless moment and trying to drag yourself out.


Let me know how you get on! If you’d like to know about mindset training, why not have a 1-hour taster session? You can find out more here