Durable Helplessness Not a Mental Mistake

There is an undisputable phenomenon in mice and humans (and all mammals in between.) The experience of being helpless to protect oneself can induce a durable (that is not necessarily permanent but possibly permanent) biological state in which attempts to help oneself diminish markedly, even in subsequent situations where the possibility of helping oneself is available and not even strongly hidden or hard to see.

This is called learned helplessness and it is a term and a construct that I have not questioned until recently. Now with mice of course, ‘learned’ implies conditioning, but with humans ‘learned’ implies a mental (or worse moral) mistake, since even if conditioning is an element, humans are ‘expected’ to recognize what is happening and either assent or contravene the conditioning by force of will.

A couple of definitions are in order. Powerlessness is the inability to control other people and events to further one’s interests. Police and politicians have limited legal power, for instance, and the rich have some power to control conditions, but as humans, powerlessness is actually the normal state. It becomes an issue after narcissistic injury when the wounded party believes he or she should have this power, to make things right. Powerless is not the subject of this post but I define it here to better define helplessness, because in our deeply narcissistic and narcissistically-injured culture the two are confused.

Helplessness is the inability to protect one’s integrity because one’s native abilities are exceeded by the threat, and help cannot be recruited. A baby for instance is constantly on the verge of helplessness except for being able to recruit help from caregivers. If the caregiver is inadequate, the baby is actually helpless. Action-adventure movies often display implausible situations where the hero is rendered temporarily helpless by an evil genius–this is an primitive universal fear that fascinates us. However, in the movies, the hero is never daunted. That is inaccurate physiology.

The actuality of being helpless strongly induces the dorsal vagal freeze response. If this is not promptly reversed (in superheroes this is by implausibly skillful active defensive actions, but in normal humans needs to be done by say by trembling or crying), the freeze response becomes embedded in the person.

In chronic threat, there is no time to recover. ¬†Freeze becomes chronic physiologically which means submission becomes chronic interpersonally. Submission of course at times is the best response objectively, and so may be simulated. But physiological submission is involuntary, and renders the person truly helpless. Some would say that is its purpose–to create a circumstance in which predators have no worry and so relax–but I dislike teleological explanations. The question has been why ¬†is this state sustained well past the point when circumstance have changed?

An example is the actions of some recipients of intimate partner violence. Often it is noted that even after successful separation from the abusive partner, there is an ineffectiveness of self-protection, even if there is high-level performance in other areas of life. Learned helplessness disables the normal threat detection system of everyday life.

For this phenomenon I think the term durable helplessness is more accurate and less pejorative. Physiology as basic as the autonomic system is much more powerful than objective insight and this is true as well within the bodies of scientists. An avoidant attachment style may mean that little submission occurs short of gunpoint, but this does not rule out a strong chronic freeze response. Intellectualism is in part a by-product of the dissociative aspect of a dorsal vagal state.

Michael Samsel

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