Learned Helplessness And It’s Connection To Substance Abuse

by baladmin | September 19, 2013

Learned helplessness is a term used to explain why a college student still brings his or her laundry home for mom to wash. If your mother continuously did your laundry for you, and she is okay with you bringing it home for her to do, what’s the problem?

Origin of Learned Helplessness

In 1965, scientist Martin Seligman started experimenting on dogs in an effort to follow up on Pavlov’s work. Seligman’s process would most likely be classified as animal cruelty today, but what he learned was that dogs would forego an exit when presented to them if they had been denied an exit for an extended period of time before then.

The actual term “learned helplessness” comes from a series of animal studies. Rats were also put into a cage without any way of exiting. When an exit opens up and the rats are then able to escape the cage, the rats do not take the opportunity to leave, just like Seligman’s dogs. The rats and dogs adopted a sense of powerlessness, or learned helplessness, that scientists believe can help explain one component of addiction.

How Does Learned Helplessness Apply to Substance Abuse?

Addicts experience a powerlessness over the use of drugs and alcohol, and over various behaviors. Eventually a person can feel that control of life is no longer in his or her hands. At some point, instead of trying to stop using or drinking, the addict succumbs to the mindset that this is the life that was meant for me. When destiny seems determined, what is the point of wasting energy to fight the inevitable?

Research points to the ability for addiction to cause learned helplessness, and for learned helplessness to cause addiction. The first scenario can be explained quite simply: after repeated drug or alcohol abuse, the user can feel that he or she is no longer capable of doing much else. The chemicals have altered the user’s brain, and the result is thinking and feeling worthless.

How Can Learned Helplessness Influence Addiction?

In the case of the college student who brings home laundry for mom to do, it can be assumed that laundry was done during childhood. This person grew up not needing to learn how to do tasks and chores on his or her own because there was always someone else doing them.

If a child who does nothing for him or herself becomes an adult without life skills, the self-esteem and self-worth of this individual suffers. Drugs and alcohol can serve as an escape from those emotions, and a way to numb out from the reality of his or her life. How can you gain back any form of worth when you are living the destructive life of an addict?

Addiction and learned helplessness can essentially feed one another, and the cycle can continue on for years. Without treatment, sadly the combination often leads to the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse: relational, financial, legal, emotional, physical, and mental repercussions.

What Can You Do?

If you can identify the correlation of addiction and learned helplessness in yourself or in somebody that you love, you can help break the cycle. The treatment team at Balboa Horizons can help determine what needs to be addressed and how to start the healing process.

With an individualized treatment plan, an addict can work through reasons for initial substance use and for continued abuse and addiction, either of which can include learned helplessness. Balboa Horizons will teach life skills and encourage confidence building through a variety of traditional therapeutic approaches plus alternative, holistic methods of healing.

Stop the cycle of addiction now.