How to Overcome the Learned Helplessness of an Addiction with the Help of FriendsDr. Meera Joseph
“Learned helplessness” is a term from the world of psychology that has been around for a while. It was first coined during experiments with lab animals that over a prolonged period of exposure to acute stress (electric shocks applied to their cage) stopped reacting to the stimuli by trying to run away or escape. Instead, over time, these animals became indifferent to the electric shocks— so much so that even when they were offered an escape route, they refused to use it. They had adopted— (as an unconscious survival mechanism mediated by their primitive brain)— a state of learned helplessness or powerlessness.
A similar phenomenon occurs with drug and alcohol abuse and is in fact a common feature of addiction: people who become habituated to using drugs or alcohol in essence “learn” to become helpless as they keep returning to the same addictive behaviors that make them feel powerless. This state of learned helpless is often characterized by indifference, inaction, apathy, and the perception that there is nothing that can be done to change one’s current situation. In essence, a person experiencing learned helplessness feels doomed and condemned to keep on relapsing, without any hope of escape or recovery.
Characteristics of Learned Helplessness Associated with Addiction
When it occurs in cases of addiction, learned helplessness is associated with other characteristics that often describe people with addictions. People with addictions disproportionately suffer from “early maladaptive schemas”— a fancy clinical term which really refers to the broad storylines or pervasive themes that we all use to describe our lives (to some degree or another). In cases of addiction, these life narratives going all the way back to childhood have often been disrupted (in many cases by trauma). The result: a tendency towards dysfunctional or “maladaptive” schemas.
Here are some other characteristics related to learned helplessness in cases of addiction:
- People with addiction tend to display higher rates of a “pessimistic attributional style,” meaning that they are more inclined to embrace a negative explanation for the things that happen to them in life.
- As I’ve emphasized before, people in active addiction or early recovery suffer from low levels of dopamine, which is the biological explanation for many of the symptoms that contribute to learned helplessness (such as poor motivation, low self-esteem, very little sense of self-agency, difficulties problem solving, pessimism and loneliness).
How to Transcend Learned Helplessness with the Help of Friends and Social Support
Obviously, then, learned helplessness is a very real obstacle to recovery from addiction. (In fact, research has revealed that people in substance abuse treatment who display high levels of learned helplessness achieve poorer recovery outcomes.) But learned helplessness is also surmountable, thanks to at least one key factor that we’re exploring as part of this month’s theme: the power of peer influence. In this case, I’m talking about the power of positive peer influence and how to tap into a healthy support system in order to transcend feelings of learned helplessness. Here are some tips for doing that:
- Practice asking for help. Asking for help can be hard for many of us, but is especially hard if you’ve become accustomed to thinking that your situation won’t change and that nothing you do will make a difference. But asking for help is also probably the most direct antidote to learned helplessness.
You don’t have to reserve your requests for help for only the crises either. The more you can practice learning into your social support system (your friends, family, neighbors and support group, etc.) the more you’ll sense that support for when the real crises hit. Even if the request is as small as asking to borrow an egg from a neighbor while you’re making supper, that can be a reminder that you are not alone— and, that with the help of your support system, there will be a solution to problems that seem overwhelming.
- Find a mentor and regularly meet with them. The ideal person is someone who is successfully in recovery and passionate about and committed to the same enterprise in your life. Examples might include a 12-step sponsor or recovery coach.
- Surround yourself with people who are emotionally resilient, and strive to learn from them. Whether or not they’re in recovery, your best company will be people who possess these key traits that define emotional resilience. Look for these sorts of people in your daily interactions and seek out their friendships.
How have your friends and support network helped you overcome the learned helplessness of addiction? Share your experience with the rest of us!