Learned helplessness is a term that describes the viewpoint that an individual’s actions cannot significantly affect the events that happen in their lives. Individuals who operate in learned helplessness often feel that their choices do not affect the outcome of the world around them and their own individual futures.

This mindset can be reinforced when life throws unexpected events our way. When something happens that we cannot control, our sense of powerlessness can increase, and the idea that our actions do not make a difference can get reinforced.

However, while we do not have control over everything that happens, we do have control over many significant aspects of our lives, and we can choose to move forward with agency, courage, and direction. If we let learned helplessness become a default mindset, we will find it much harder to do this. We may find ourselves giving up trying in nearly all scenarios because we do not believe our actions would make a difference in the outcome of our success. This lack of motivation and genuine effort can lead us to experience worse outcomes, which can reinforce our learned helplessness in a vicious cycle.

Learned Helplessness and Addiction

The reinforcement of learned helplessness can be extremely problematic when it comes to addiction, especially through the process of recovery. If you find yourself feeling helpless and unable to make a difference in your recovery success, you are continually setting yourself up for that outcome. 

During the cycle of addiction, our brain and body become dependent on a substance to feel like we are properly functioning. This dependency can influence the feeling of helplessness. As you work toward recovery and eventually long-term sobriety maintenance, you may find that the psychological dependency is as difficult to overcome as the physical dependency. When you encounter the challenges of recovery, you may find yourself feeling helpless and thinking that nothing will ever work for you.

Complications for Sobriety Maintenance

The learned helplessness mindset is extremely dangerous for recovery and your ability to maintain long-term sobriety. If you are not able to work through the feelings of helplessness, the potential for relapse is much greater. Learned helplessness is also concerning in increasing the potential of relapse by decreasing care for your actions. If you feel that your actions will not make any difference in your long-term success, then one relapse will not matter, right?

This assumption is far from true. Each time you choose to engage with these thought patterns, you are reinforcing their validity. If you continue to allow this mindset to take over, you will likely step back through all the progress you have made from recovery. Remember that long-term sobriety will be much more difficult the more you engage with thoughts that undercut your power and deplete your motivation.

Problems With Opportunities for Growth

Along with promoting the potential for relapse, learned helplessness can take away some of our opportunities to advance our skills. Both in recovery and after completion, you will continue to obtain knowledge and practice skills to help you maintain sobriety. If you consistently have the mindset that your actions do not make a difference, you likely will push away opportunities to learn.

How Does Learned Helplessness Develop?

Learned helplessness is, as the term implies, a learned behavior. This means this behavior had to be implemented and reinforced at some point through addiction or recovery. If you attempt to quit the use of a substance and find yourself consistently falling back into old habits, your perception can easily become that your actions are not working and will never work.

If you continue to use different strategies and the failure continues, you may be tempted to entertain thoughts of learned helplessness. The more you do this, the more you strengthen the belief that your actions do not matter. While many addictions take various attempts to complete recovery and maintain sobriety, it can still be frustrating to need to continually overcome relapses.

It is important to keep in mind that each time you relapse, you can learn something new. Recovery is similar to a process of experimentation. You need to try various methods to observe which outcome is the best for your long-term success. With each failure you encounter, you are one step closer to success. Don’t allow the perception of helplessness to get in the way of that.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

The main aspect to focus on when working to overcome learned helplessness is adjusting your mindset toward yourself. If you are struggling with this, you likely view yourself in somewhat of a negative light, believing you cannot make a difference in yourself or the world around you. Implement practices of self-care and learn to love yourself through actions. If you choose to treat yourself like you are deserving of respect and care, you will eventually see how true that is, even if you initially struggled to believe it. Reminding yourself of your importance through your actions is the first step toward a mindset shift.

As you begin to increase positive thoughts toward yourself, consider different situations where you either did make a difference or could have. Did you open the door for someone with their arms full? Did you let another driver in front of you during traffic?

As simple as these things are, they may make a big difference to the other person. Viewing how small actions can positively influence others can help you remember the influence that your actions can have. Now think of how far you can go in recovery with this positivity.

Learned helplessness is a thought process that can drastically discourage recovery success and maintenance of sobriety if not properly addressed. This thought process gets solidified when individuals reinforce the idea that their actions cannot significantly influence their surroundings and that, therefore, the ability to recover and stay sober is not their choice. This can increase the potential for relapse to occur, prevent opportunities to gain more skills, and set up a negative self-perception. By caring for yourself and choosing to notice the impact your actions have on the world around you, you can overcome this mental obstacle and stay on the path to success after recovery. Understand that your current actions are what allowed you to make it this far through recovery. To learn more about the effects of learned helplessness and how to overcome these thoughts, reach out to Dream Recovery at (949) 732-1960.

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