Learned Helplessness, Trauma, and Teen Depression

There are many ways that clinical psychologists and theorists have looked at teen depression over the years. Can explore it as purely a biological disease, meaning the result of chemical deficiencies in the brain. It might be a symptom of physical ailments, such as accompanying chronic illness. It can be a spiritual ailment, meaning the result of not having a connection to a higher being. Depression has also been seen as a learned habit, which is the view of Dr. Martin Seligman.

Learned Helplessness

Seligman is popular in the field of psychology. He is the past president of the American Psychological Association; he was deemed to be the 13th most cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks; and he is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman began his career with a strong interest in depression. Which later developed into his theory of learned helplessness and positive psychology.

In 1967, Seligman conducted experiments on dogs that led to a theory about learned helplessness. In the first series of experiments, they place a dog in a large cage with a hurdle in the middle. To test the dog’s ability to escape the pain they experience, the experiment gives them shocks. When they jump over the hurdle, the shocks stop. Eventually, the dogs learn that when they jump over the hurdle, the shocks would cease and they would no longer be in pain.

However, in the second series of experiments, Seligman gives the dogs shocks in an environment in which they could not escape. They had to simply sit there and take the pain they experienced. There was nothing they could do. At first, they howled and barked, but over a period of time, they gave up and continued helplessly and hopelessly experience the pain.

When these same dogs were later given the opportunity to escape the shocks, returning to the cage in which they could jump over the hurdle and avoid the pain, they did nothing. Although all they had to do was jump over the hurdle, they seem to learn that there was nothing they could do but take the pain. Seligman called this phenomenon “learned helplessness”.

The Study Connection

Interestingly, the symptoms that these helpless, hopeless dogs exhibited mirrored those symptoms of depression in adults and teens. For instance, when food was  on the other side of the hurdle, inviting the dogs to jump to the other side when they were in pain, they did not. The dogs show low appetite. When a female dog in heat was on the other side of the hurdle, again inviting the dogs to jump to the other side when experiencing pain. The dogs did not go. They show low libido. It was only when Seligman grabbed the dogs and dragged them to the other side of the hurdle. By showing them what was possible, they began jumping on their own again.

When it comes to human beings – adults and teens – trauma may be contribute to the behavior that Seligman would describe as learned helplessness.A traumatic experience is when it threatens one’s injury, death, or physical integrity. And is usually accompanied by terror and helplessness. A traumatic event could be: the death of a friend or family member, sexual or physical abuse, an automobile accident, domestic violence, school violence, experiences of war, the effects of natural disasters, and acts of terrorism. Often teen trauma is accompanied by the experience of helplessness. Which is similar to the initial experiences of those dogs taking the painful shocks.

Past Experiences are Important


With enough traumatic experiences, whether large or small, and the accompanied chronic feelings of helplessness, an individual might eventually learn to remain helpless and disempowered. Learn about teen depression treatment for trauma and helpessness adolescents here.

These experiments illustrate how significant a role past experiences, memory, hope, and learning play in one’s overall sense of well being, mood, and empowerment. Although they all contribute to an experience of depression, they too can be used to reverse the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, just as when the dogs were dragged over and shown that a pain-free experience is possible.


Reflecting on this and how learned helplessness is a part of one’s life can create an opportunity to break through this limiting pattern. And to find a pain-free, positive way of experiencing life.



Strohecker, J & Strohecker, N. (1999). Natural healing for depression: Solutions from the world’s great health traditions and practitioners. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc.

Martin Seligman. Wikipedia. Retrieved on April 3, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Seligman