One thing which often spares people from feelings of depression or helplessness is a sense of control over their immediate or long term circumstances. A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.
Learned helplessness can be seen as a coping mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile. Even if an opportunity to report or escape the abuse arises, many victims of long-term abuse choose to remain in the relationship because of learned helplessness.
Another common example of this phenomenon can be observed in school classrooms. Individual students are free to get up from their seats at any time to use the restroom, or even to leave the building. However, most students quickly learn that such actions result in swift and definitive punishment, so they eventually learn to remain in place during class. This form of learned helplessness helps instructors to maintain control over a large group of students, and students do eventually regain a sense of control over their own circumstances.
The link between learned helplessness and depression has been well-established in the psychological community. Some experts suggest this phenomenon can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband's commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the "normal" demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the cycle.
One famous experiment which examined the phenomenon of learned helplessness involved three sets of dogs. One set of dogs were placed in regular harnesses and became the control group. The second set of dogs were fitted with shock collars and placed in boxes with a foot-operated switch. These dogs could turn off the painful shocks by pressing the switch at any time. The third set of dogs were tethered to the second set with the shock collars, but their foot switches were rendered useless by the experimenters. They had no control over the duration or intensity of the electric shocks.
The results of the experiment demonstrated that the third group of dogs eventually stopped pressing the ineffective foot switches and became very passive and depressed. For those dogs, the painful shocks became an inescapable part of their existence, with no possible way to control or escape the situation. During a second experiment in which the dogs could end the shocks by jumping over a low barrier, the dogs from the third group would not even attempt to jump. This passivity and loss of self-worth is the direct result of learned helplessness, and many people who suffer from clinical depression require extensive therapy to recover from its effects.