By Michael Weiner, Ph.D., MCAP

anxious man sweating

There are things in life that we never think of controlling. We tend not to worry about those things or try to change them. For example, I used to live around Rochester, NY. The winters were miserable. The summers were short. Spring and fall were really nice. No one tried to change the weather because we accepted it for what is was. The weather was something that we needed to take into account we dressed in a lot of layers in the winter and put snow tires on our vehicles, but no one thought that they could control the weather.

There are other things in life that we accept that we’re powerless over, e.g. we drive defensively because no one knows what other drivers will do. We accept that there are aspects of a person that genetics, not us, has control over. For the most part, we accept that we can’t control other people.

Again, we take these things into account, but we accept that we’re powerless.

Then, there are other things that we have come to believe that we have some control over. Some of these things could be:

• If I work hard and obey the rules, good things will happen.
• We manage our finances. Everyone knows that there’s going to be an unexpected bill here and there, and sometimes there’s a windfall. However, most of us, by and large, live within a budget.
• There are people in life who I want to treat well, e.g. close friends, close family.
• I believe that if I eat right and exercise, I will have some control over my health.
• Most of us plan on staying out of trouble. Mostly, we obey the law.

I imagine that we could list other things that we perceive that we have some control over. With other things we accept powerlessness.

What happens when we start to lose control over those aspects of our lives that we perceive we ought to be able to do something about? To be brief, Dr. Martin Seligman and others have done a lot of research in the laboratory and in real life that provides us with insight. It’s not hard to teach laboratory rodents that there are some
things they can control, e.g. “every time I push that bar, food comes down the shoot.”

You can make it a little more complicated so that our rodent learns that it’s safe to press the bar most of the time. However, if a red light is on, our rodent gets a very mild shock when the bar is pressed. It’s safe to press that bar only when that light is off. After a while, our rodent figures it out. The bar is pressed only when it’s safe. “Anthropomorphism” is attributing human traits to animals.” Who knows what those critters were thinking or if they were thinking at all, but that’s what they do.

Let’s say that we create a situation where the relationship between the bar, the food, and a mild shock becomes random. Rodents develop anxiety. They press that bar every which way to try and reestablish control. After a while they just stop trying to figure out when food is available or when they will get a shock. They stop trying; they
stop eating, and sometimes die. It looks like depression.

Humans are very similar. As indicated above there are things in our lives that we expect to have control over.

What happens when we begin to lose control? When things become unmanageable?

What happens when progressively:
• We can barely do the job that we once took pride in. The quality goes down. Days are missed.
• Our credit cards are maxed out. We can’t pay our bills.
• We begin to use people we care about. People begin to walk away.
• We become sick because we’re not eating as we need to and not sleeping.
• We can’t seem to stay out of trouble, e.g. a DUI (or two), drunk and disorderly.

This is the time when we begin to behave like laboratory rodents. We get anxious and do everything we can to try and regain control and/or fix things. The anxiety builds as we try harder and harder to prove to ourselves and to others that we’re okay. We do something really special at work or take a second job to get back on top of our finances. We do special things for special people.

All of this creates anxiety. The harder we try the more anxious we get. We sweat.

And as long as we stay in our addiction, plans to get back on top of things just don’t work. Self-esteem suffers.

At this point it’s likely that we’re going to turn to what we know will make the pain of anxiety and depression go away very fast. We feed addiction.

And when we get to that point of total unmanageability, we do the same thing that rodents do. We give up. We stop trying. We give up trying to do anything about all of the things we still care about. That’s depression!

What I’m writing about here is “Learned Helplessness” and it affects everyone stepping through the door of a treatment center. We can add that to the anxiety that comes from thoughts of beginning a new life without the substances that have been relied on for a long time.

Now, let’s throw in “Holiday Season.” It’s a time of the year when everyone is supposed to be happy. You are clearly not happy; anxiety and depression progress.

There are several aspects of treatment/recovery that can help to alleviate anxiety and depression:

• Generally speaking, treatment centers are very welcoming and accepting.
• You learn that you’re not alone.
• Stories can give you faith that recovery is possible.
• As the cloud lifts, life becomes more manageable.
• The most important thing may be, that addiction moves from the list of items we perceived that we had control over (were manageable), to the list of what we are powerless over. Like the weather, we accept powerlessness, but we develop tools that keep us safe.

Once a new person can accept that “we admitted we were powerless over addiction-that our lives had become unmanageable.” anxiety and depression begin to lift. I can accept that I’m powerless, but now I have tools so that I don’t pick up that first drink/drug. Tools include:

• Mutual support (could be 12-step and/or SMART)
• Working the steps or a Handbook
• A sponsor in 12-step
• Faith/Spirituality in knowing that if I use these tools, I will be okay.
• Fellowship in mutual support

The goal is not to eliminate anxiety totally. A mild amount can actually motivate us to do some things better. It could make an achievement that much more satisfying.

The ultimate goal is to live well.

Michael Weiner is in private practice offering Lifespan Recovery Management. He regularly publishes in journals and presents at conferences. Professional interests include long term monitoring of addiction and the elimination of stigma.
He can be reached at (561) 398-8696, at or at