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Learned Helplessness

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What is it and why does it happen?


Learned helplessness occurs when someone is continuously exposed to aversive environments and negative outcomes. Individuals develop learned helplessness when they feel they have no control over their life which leads to acting in a helpless manner because in their eyes there is no use in trying. Although learned helplessness was originally discovered in dogs, the impact has been consistently seen in humans and has since become a basic principal in behavior theory.


Most humans can relate to learned helplessness in some way or another. For example, someone who continuously tries to diet but does not seem to be getting the desired results, may eventually just give up and think that nothing they do will ever work.


Learned Helplessness in addictionLearned helplessness can be seen in even more extreme ways such as a victim in a domestically violent relationship. For example, the victim may feel completely powerless in the relationship and may act passively with the perpetrator. The victim may continue to take abuse without trying to solve the problem or escape because they feel that nothing will change and there is nothing they can do to resolve the issue.


It is important to note that learned helplessness is not an in-born trait. It is something that is developed over time and is a response to failure not success. This behavior can be learned from others who model helplessness or after continuous occurrence of negative outcomes. Furthermore, learned helplessness is not a reflection of a competence problem within an individual. However, some people that have a disposition to be pessimistic may be more vulnerable to learned helplessness.

The theory of learned helplessness is often applied to substance abuse and addiction. Many individuals struggling with addiction believe that they cannot stop their substance use which prevents them from recovery. More over, learned helplessness can lead to individuals coping by using substances.


There is hope!


Because this behavior is learned, that means it can be unlearned. Although this behavior is learned as a survival skill, it is imperative that it is unlearned because it affects lives in more than one negative way. Learned helplessness can lead to someone missing out on opportunities to problem solve and improve their life. Additionally, it can also lead to depression, anxiety and poor physical health.


With the help of a knowledgeable and compassionate therapist, individuals can explore where the root of this behavior comes from. A skilled therapist will help individuals reclaim control and power over their lives by problem solving and finding solutions that actually work.


Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a modality often used to unlearn learned helplessness. For example, CBT is applied to replace negative thoughts such as, “there’s no use”, with more empowering thoughts such as, “this may take some time and effort”.


It is important for those struggling with substance abuse or addiction to be put in environments with other people that empower them. Often times, those struggling with addiction and substance use are surrounded by others struggling with the same things and contribute to their learned helplessness. Treatment centers should focus on empowering the patrons while encouraging patrons to empower each other.

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