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Overcoming Learned Helplessness

People struggling with substance use disorders, anxiety, and depression frequently complain about feelings of helplessness. They can point to a series of past life circumstances they had no control over. These experiences often include job loss, marital conflict, death of a loved one, infidelity, divorce, a serious accident, illness, or injury. In many of these situations, the person did not have control of the situation or circumstance. Because they had no control over these events, they may believe they were inadequate, incompetent, and powerless. Consequently, they begin to feel helpless. Hopelessness is a feeling, and helplessness is the non-action coming from those feelings. Helplessness and hopelessness may cause you to feel stuck, uncertain, and paralyzed, although it is possible to overcome these feelings and their resulting behaviors.  

Helpless Thinking Patterns  

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thought processes of a depressed person, particularly the hopeless, helpless thinking, and changing negative thought patterns. Helpless thinking is filled with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. It is often accompanied by low motivation, feeling cautious and insecure. People often lack the inability or desire to persevere under stress.  

Helpless thoughts and actions often have their origins in past traumatic experiences where you had limited resources, few choices, or felt defeated, trapped, and overwhelmed. Those feelings become generalized to other, more common, and less threatening situations. As you develop increased confidence and assurance in your abilities, helplessness will diminish.  

A New Perspective  

To decrease feelings of helplessness, focus on your abilities, not your limitations. Regularly think through what is going well, and do not get stuck on what is not. Consider your recent successes, and be intentional about seeing the ways you positively contributed to your own success. Minimize difficulties, hardships, and stressful situations. Maximize your strengths and positive traits. Make efforts to rise up, solve problems, work harder, and persevere through difficult times. Collaborate with people who believe the best about you. They will encourage, inspire, and affirm you in your journey, without solving the problem for you.  

Recovery is a Journey. Enjoy the Ride!