Addiction and the Experience of Learned Helplessness

Posted by | Co-Occurring Disorders & Mental Health, Treatment Programs, Wellness | July 20, 2015

In 1967, Seligman conducted experiments on dogs that led to a theory about learned helplessness. In the first series of experiments, dogs were placed in a large cage with a hurdle in the middle. The dogs were given shocks to test their ability to escape the pain they experienced. When they jumped over the hurdle, the shocks stopped. Eventually, the dogs learned that when they jump over the hurdle, the shocks would cease and they would no longer be in pain.

However, in the second series of experiments, dogs were given shocks in an environment in which they could not escape. They had to simply sit there and take the pain they experienced. There was nothing they could do. At first, they howled and barked, but over a period of time, they gave up and continued helplessly and hopelessly experience the pain.

When these same dogs were later given the opportunity to escape the shocks, returning to the cage in which they could jump over the hurdle and avoid the pain, they did nothing. Although all they had to do was jump over the hurdle, they seemed to have learned that there was nothing they could do but take the pain. Seligman called this phenomenon “learned helplessness.”

Interestingly, the symptoms that these helpless dogs exhibited mirrored those symptoms of depression in adults. For instance, when food was placed on the other side of the hurdle, inviting the dogs to jump to the other side when they were in pain, they did not – showing low appetite. When a female dog in heat was placed on the other side of the hurdle, again inviting the dogs to jump to the other side when experiencing pain, they did not – showing low libido. It was only when Seligman grabbed the dogs and dragged them to the other side of the hurdle, showing them what was possible, they began jumping on their own again.

When it comes to adults, trauma may be contribute to the behavior that Seligman would describe as learned helplessness. An experience is considered traumatic when it threatens one’s injury, death, or physical integrity, and is usually accompanied by terror and helplessness. A traumatic event could be the death of a friend or family member, sexual or physical abuse, an automobile accident, domestic violence, school violence, experiences of war, the effects of natural disasters, and acts of terrorism. Often trauma is accompanied by the experience of helplessness, similar to the initial experiences of those dogs that were forced to take the painful shocks.

With enough traumatic experiences, whether large or small, and the accompanied chronic feelings of helplessness, an individual might eventually learn to remain helpless and disempowered. And there’s no question that helplessness and feelings of powerlessness contribute to the development of an addiction.

Seligman’s experiments illustrate how significant a role past experiences, memory, hope, and learning play in one’s overall sense of well being, mood, and empowerment. Although they can all contribute to an addiction, they too can be used to reverse the feelings of helplessness, just as when the dogs were dragged over and shown that a pain-free experience is possible.

Reflecting on this and how learned helplessness is a part of one’s life can perhaps create an opportunity to break through this limiting pattern, including the imprisoning patterns of addiction, and find a pain-free, positive way of experiencing life.

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