Self-efficacy, the term used to describe our belief about what we are capable of doing in any given situation, is influenced by experience and the actions of others, and it is put to the test when we are caught in dangerous situations. If we are able to master the situation of danger, to successfully run away or win the fight, or we are able to successfully recruit help, then the risk of long-term physical and psychological changes are lessened. But if we can do nothing to prevent ourselves or someone else from sustaining harm, we experience helplessness. Human beings deplore feeling helpless. We will do almost anything to avoid experiencing our own impotence. Children are especially prone to post-traumatic stress because they are helpless in most situations.
Important animal and human research confirms that powerful physiological forces are at work in the phenomenon called "learned helplessness." It has been repeatedly demonstrated that in an environment in which some important outcome is beyond control, an animal will give up trying to alter its situation and will come to expect that nothing it can do will change the outcome. The animal learns to be helpless and this helplessness persists even when conditions change and the animal could regain control in the environment.
The normal response of a dog, cat, rat, or human is to escape from any situation that evokes fear. When the animal successfully escapes, it learns to escape from similar situations quite rapidly and suffers no long-term effects from the experiment. This normal response is altered when an organism has previously been exposed to fear-evoking stimuli, like electric shocks, from which escape is physically impossible. Under such circumstances, the animal learns that nothing it can do alters the inevitability of the fear-provoking stimuli. Then, when presented with situations that are similar, except for the fact that now the animal can escape, it fails to do so, acting as if it were blind to the fact that an escape route lies before it. Even when it does respond effectively and the fear-evoking stimuli cease as a result, it has troubles learning, perceiving, and believing that the response worked. Repeated experiences with such helplessness produces learning, motivational, and emotional problems in animals and humans. Physically, the immune response is altered and the animals are more susceptible to tumors and to infections . Helplessness has also been associated in humans and animals with increased risk of death not as a result of the overwhelming fear, but as a result of passivity, of giving up and giving in to death . According to Seligman's findings, only one third of animals tested were resistant to these effects and behaved normally and we have much yet to learn about the factors which may produce such resilience.
People who are traumatized have been exposed to an acute experience of impaired self- efficacy and helplessness. They were unable to prevent or terminate the traumatic experience. They had no control over what was happening to them. They were helpless. For children raised in abusive or neglectful homes, this failure to achieve a feeling of competence or efficacy often pervades their entire development. Regardless of what they do, how hard they try to please, how fast they run away, how strenuously they try not to cry-nothing stops the abuse. As a result they often give up any notion that they can affect the course of their lives in a positive way. Many children who are not physically or sexually abused are emotionally abused. Their sense of self- efficacy can be seriously undermined by disparaging comments, and by ridiculing and humiliating statements, from parents, teachers, schoolmates, and other caretakers. This absence or loss of self-efficacy can be countered with positive social encouragement, persuasion, and example. Unfortunately, helpless people often evoke rejecting and cruel responses on the part of the people they need most, those who could most influence a more positive outcome.
Seligman, M. (1992). Helplessness: On depression, development and death. New York, W. H. Freeman and Co.
Shavit, Y. (1991). Stress-induced immune modulation in animals: Opiates and endogenous opioid peptides. Psychoimmunology, 2nd ed. R. Ader, D. L. Felten and E. N. Cohen. San Diego, Academic Press.
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. (2013) Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge.