Get Help Now 760-492-6385

Living with the belief that you cannot change the course of your life can feel like an oppressive weight on your chest that is paralyzing action. Such feelings of powerlessness can be so overwhelming that you simply resign all efforts to influence outcomes. You might start using drugs or alcohol to numb your pain, leading to addiction and worsened outcomes for your quality of life. 

You can find your voice again by receiving treatment for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. 

What Does Learned Helplessness Mean?

On its own, to be helpless means to be incapable, powerless, or vulnerable. Learning helplessness suggests that through repeated experiences, a person has learned that their decisions have no effect on the final outcome.

How Does This Develop?

People stuck in this state have usually experienced multiple traumatic events in childhood or adulthood. For instance, a child may have been in and out of foster homes due to neglectful parents. An adult may have been physically abused by a partner for many years. 

Over time, an individual may come to believe they are fated for trauma and tragedy, and as a result, they stop trying to direct their life in a meaningful way. Where they really want or need to go isn’t really on the table for discussion. Even when they have the means to make a change, they often forgo attempts to take matters into their own hands.

Red Flags to Look Out For 

You might know a person like this, or maybe you experience helplessness yourself. 

Someone who feels this way passively accepts a lot of what comes their way and will claim that they don’t have any options. They often struggle to make decisions and lack the motivation to take action and confidence and self-esteem. 

In the end, they resort to giving up. Learned helplessness can be masked by positive phrases like, “I’m just going with the flow” or “Everything will work out in the end.” Deep down, however, they are facing turmoil. 

Is This Similar to Acceptance?

Learning to accept situations for what they are and not what you want them to be is an important concept and practice that is often the subject of mindfulness-based therapies in treatment facilities for mental health and addiction. However, it would be a mistake to conflate acceptance with “throwing in the towel.”

Acceptance is different because it is about accepting what you cannot change while at the same time exhibiting a loving-kindness towards where you are in your life and where others are at in theirs. Acceptance is a moving target, not an endpoint like resignation. It takes thoughtful contemplation to determine whether to actively pursue change on a matter or let it be. 

As the Serenity Prayer from the Twelve Steps goes: 

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and
wisdom to know the difference.

How Is Mental Health Related? 

Learned helplessness can stem from and contribute to mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

For instance, imagine you have generalized anxiety disorder. You already struggle with uncertainty because of the discomfort and stress it causes. Your world is challenging and scary, but with feelings of helplessness, you can become more preoccupied with securing your safety and avoiding situations that could be distressing. This can limit social interactions and opportunities that would contribute positively to your growth. 

What About Addiction?

Mental health disorders and addiction co-occur about 50% of the time. There is a high chance that a person will turn to substances to cope with these negative cognitive and emotional patterns. 

How Can You Get Help? 

Learned helplessness is exactly that: learned. This means you can unlearn it too. One of the most effective ways to do this is in psychotherapy, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Other therapies that can help address trauma include: 

  • Experiential Therapies  
  • Somatic Experiencing 
  • Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) 
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 

In DBT, you will work with a therapist to determine when you learned helplessness and develop skills to confront challenging emotions in real-time. Your therapist can also help you identify negative thoughts that contribute to your pattern and approaches to combat these feelings. The ultimate goal is to replace harmful thoughts and behaviors with healthy ones and learn to truly accept rather than resign. You will likely find that your self-esteem and confidence will start to be stored. 

It is important to note that if you use substances as a method of escape, you will also need to get treated for a substance use disorder. Treating both conditions at the same time will increase your chances of fully recovering. 

When a person has lived through highly stressful experiences, they may come to accept that they cannot control certain outcomes. Sometimes it can feel easier to give up than to face the emotional and mental discomfort of a particular issue. This is called learned helplessness and it can lead to mental health conditions and addiction. West Coast Recover Centers is an addiction treatment center located in Oceanside, CA. We also treat disorders that can co-occur with substance use, such as trauma and PTSD. Our facility is nationally accredited through the Joint Commission and certified by the Department of Healthcare Services. We’ve been around since 2012, helping adults regain their determination to progress in life. It is our mission to inspire and empower change through innovative, traditional, and non-traditional methods of treatment. If you have any questions about how we can help, call (760) 492-6509 today.