How Learned Helplessness Can Make It Harder to Stop Smoking Cigarettes


Anyone who has been subjected to constant suffering with little hope of respite might be familiar with the phenomenon of learned helplessness. The term learned helplessness refers to when a person or animal has been subjected to an unpleasant circumstance (often a punishment of some kind) and tried to escape from it many times, only to fail and have their will to resist weaken to the point of apathy. The ultimate proof of learned helplessness is when circumstances change, allowing the subject to resist the punishment, yet they are unable to because of their complete despair.

The impact of learned helplessness on humans

The effects of learned helplessness are similar to the effects of clinical depression. Both states are characterised by apathy and despair. It has been suggested that clinical depression is a form of learned helplessness brought about by one’s inability to overcome one’s fear of death. The most common example of learned helplessness in humans is that of a child who consistently performs poorly in academic tests. If they study hard and still fail this can make the situation worse. A pattern of failure will start to become entrenched, and the student will soon come to feel themselves incapable of success. Even if the student is presented with easier material, they might still fail because they believe that this is inevitable.

The impact of learned helplessness on smoking cessation

Most people who are trying to stop smoking cigarettes are not making an effort for the first time. Often people start smoking in response to a traumatic incident or to a prolonged period of boredom, and soon find themselves trying to give up on what has now become a habit. It should be remembered that even a cigarette smoker is a fundamentally rational being, and fifty or a hundred failed attempts to give up cigarettes will lead a person to the logical conclusion that their efforts are futile. This leads to a sense of despair, which leads to depression, which leads to smoking more cigarettes.

The tragedy is, of course, that these repeated efforts to stop smoking cigarettes under unfavourable circumstances will hinder efforts to quit when the circumstances are on the quitter’s side. Beginning to smoke cigarettes, trying to quit when the reasons for beginning are still present, and failing: this is a recipe for long-term addiction.

How to get over learned helplessness

It should be considered that learned helplessness is a reaction to a set of stimuli, which usually takes the form of an environment. If you have made a number of failed attempts to quit, you need to look at patterns in the factors present in the environments you were in when you failed. A straightforward example is of someone trying to quit who lives with other smokers. As tobacco will always be present in such an environment, temptation will be much stronger than if these factors were taken out of play.

What needs to be done, then, is to change the circumstances that surround you, whether this be physical or mental. If you go for a hike in the mountains, tell yourself that this is a new beginning for you and don’t bring the cigarettes. If you go on holiday, see it as a golden opportunity to encourage new behaviour patterns. If you can’t change your physical environment, you can always try changing the mental one. Always look for differences in your situation now when compared to all the other times you failed. Tell yourself that you’re wiser now, you’re stronger now, you’re more desperate now, and therefore you’ll overcome the despair that makes it harder to stop smoking cigarettes.

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