Many people consider learned helplessness to be a mental condition, though this provides no protection from judgements and expectations to easily overcome the condition. As a society, we are still far from appreciating mental illness as a truly palpable disease, with biological basis rather than a fantastical figment of one’s imagination. So, just as one may suggest to a friend with depression “just not to be so down about everything,” one would also likely suggest to someone struggling from learned helplessness to “break the cycle,” imaging it might be just as easy for them to get a job, etc., as it is for anyone else.

According to classical psychology’s interpretation, learned helplessness derives from childhood abuse or neglect, which can lead an individual to stop “trying” at a young age, such as a baby crying for help and their mother never comes to comfort them: they eventually just stop crying. The emotional implications this confers is that the individual has a deep belief that their fate is set in stone regardless of what they do/how hard they try to change their circumstances; this belief is sometimes planted directly via the parents who may have a “this is as good as it gets” attitude. While the overall theory of learned helplessness is more nuanced than that brief description, it’s clear how an outsider could easily criticize the person exhibiting learned helplessness, claiming that they are “playing the victim,” but the opportunity for that accusation has come to an end as the physiological basis of learned helplessness is surfacing, as once again tangible scientific proof comes to the rescue of doubted psychological conditions.

Recent studies provide proof of epigenetic changes to DNA in response to stress to an individual either in utero or in their formative years. In a mouse model the expression of BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which plays a role in brain development and protection as well as neuroplasticity, was monitored to diagnose physiological depression, which was found to be a sorting factor for whether the mouse will display learned helplessness. Forced swimming, foot shock, and tail-suspension tests were carried out and based on the number of failures, mice were sorted into learned helplessness(LH) and learned-helplessness-resistant groups (LH-R). Upon analysis, it was found that the LH group had lower serum levels of BDNF, a depression phenotype. The LH group underwent an “anti-depression” treatment consisting of injection of imipramine, a histone deacetylase inhibitor, which decreased BDNF suppression and reversed the more depressive learned-helplessness behaviors. This not only proved a physiological basis for learned helplessness behaviors, but also linked the cause of this basis to epigenetic modification of DNA by histone acetylation—in conjunction with other mouse studies on learned helplessness, which identified epigenetic changes induced by gestational stress that caused depressive and anxious behaviors, a solid physiological basis for the perpetuation of “helplessness” was revealed. On an even more basic level, the proof of learned helplessness being exhibited in animals itself makes it seem more likely that there is something deeper other than laziness or delusion driving the behavior, as animals are always driven mainly by the will to live and be successful (propagate) which they wouldn’t by failing the learned helplessness screens. The fact that mice have populations that will succumb to pressure and others that will persevere through it speaks further to learned helplessness having a deeper basis than “personality” or the trait of resilience.

The most extensive human studies of learned helplessness focus on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as the catalytic event causing epigenetic rearrangement, which then contributes to behaviors of learned helplessness. The study I used surveyed Native Americans, due to their encompassing, severe socio-economic disadvantages.

“Of the ten poorest counties in America, five are home to an Indian reservation. Concentrated poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing, and poor health and limits access to many services and job opportunities … Native Americans are disproportionally affected by trauma in childhood, including abuse, neglect, and exposure to intimate partner violence. Approximately half of Native American adolescents and young adults have been exposed to one or more severe traumatic events, and 98% have experienced a traumatic event of any severity … Reservation-based Native Americans die at higher rates than other Americans from tuberculosis (750% higher), alcoholism (524% higher), diabetes (293% higher), unintentional injuries (153% higher), homicide (103.3% higher), and suicide (66% higher).”

In addition to destitute poverty, rampant illness, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and sub-par education opportunities, “Over 50% of Native Americans indicate that they think about loss related to historical trauma, such as loss of language, loss of culture, and loss of land, at least occasionally, and which caused them psychological distress.” So not only are these people being limited in very tangible ways every day, but also have a sort of larger spiritual, political, ancestral cloud of oppression following around their culture. They are the ultimate victims of learned helplessness, as oppression comes at them relentlessly from all angles.

Native Americans suffer from high rates of depression and substance abuse which can be large factors in learned helplessness and methylation changes in DNA, which have been linked to ACEs, have been found in people suffering from these among Native American populations. The ACE most strongly correlated with epigenetic modification was child abuse, who experienced increased DNA methylation at the glucocorticoid receptor in the hippocampus; This supports another study which found increased methylation in the glucocorticoid receptor of suicide completers mainly who had suffered child abuse. In addition, methylation differences have been detected in endocrine, immune, and neurotransmitter genes which not only affect the stress response and therefore amplify psychological symptoms, but also can detrimentally affect general wellness.

There’s a long way to go to be able to use epigenetic modifications in the cure of diseases or conditions such as learned helplessness, but the main and immediate effect of the discoveries of a true molecular basis for learned helplessness is to cease the perpetuation of a culture which regards mental illness with frivolity and tends to blame individuals when larger political or deeper physiological forces are at play.


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