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4 Immediate Steps to Combat a Sense of Helplessness

There is hope, even when it doesn't feel like it.

In recent weeks, I have been seeing firsthand both professionally and personally how difficult it has been to maintain a sense of hope and well-being when world news and events seem to be careening out of control. From troubling Supreme Court decisions to horrifying cases of gun violence, from the war in Ukraine to talk of emerging new variants of coronavirus and increasing monkeypox cases, the world feels overwhelming to many people right now. Many different emotional experiences may result—from fear to rage, from grief to numbness—some even at the same time.

Of course, I can't pretend to have the solutions to these recent developments, which seem to grow in how troubling they are. But psychological science can teach us how to combat a sense of both helplessness and hopelessness. And it can help us channel our most uncomfortable emotions into something that can make a positive difference, and function and engage with our lives as they are right now, not as we wish they would be. Here are some ways to start.

1. Acknowledge your feelings and label them by name

Oftentimes, we feel momentarily more powerful if we rush toward action—we feel angry so we lash out, we feel fear so we tune out and avoid what we're scared of. But labeling our feelings actually empowers us to not be as thrown off balance by them, and it helps illuminate paths toward managing our feelings more functionally. There is no shame in having intense emotions. Pretending that we're not bothered only denies us the opportunity to give the feelings a purpose, and to let the feelings teach us something.

2. Reconnect with your values

In times of troubling national and international news, it can feel like so much is out of our control. And this sense of helplessness is compounded by how vast and insurmountable the world's problems are, and that ideas or rights that we used to take for granted may be taken away from us. But what you choose as your values cannot be taken away by anyone. You decide where your sense of purpose comes from; you determine what the recent events mean to you, and you choose what values will be your guideposts for action. When you feel lost and helpless, go back to the basics: What do you find important? What matters in your life? If you are bothered by injustice, what does that highlight about which values are important to you? Research shows that living in close accordance with our values can help us weather difficult times with more resilience.

3. Choose one small action that helps make you feel in control, and watch out for all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, and "checking out"

When world happenings feel like they are in a downward spiral, even a simple act of reestablishing some control over your life can be helpful. This is not the same as trying to get control where you can't or being unrealistic about what you should control. Instead, think about one small thing that will heighten your sense of self-efficacy. Maybe you will finally look at that bill you've been scared to open. Or you will organize your kitchen's "junk drawer." Perhaps it's something more fun, getting your hair cut, or scheduling a lunch with a friend. "Self-care" may get a bad rap when the world feels like it's on fire, but taking small steps to exert control over your life, and even allow yourself to find some joy, helps you build the strength to move forward and put some good back into the world. Finally, a sense of helplessness is often made worse by other distorted ways of thinking. Be very careful that you aren't adopting the classic cognitive distortions of all-or-nothing thinking (nothing is going right), catastrophizing (things will never get better), or trying to numb or avoid your feelings by checking out altogether.

4. Connect with others in solidarity, but in movement toward action, not rumination

Meaningful connection with others is impactful on our emotional and even physical health. Quality social support not only heightens the experience of positive emotions but can help combat our most difficult feelings when we are feeling defeated. By connecting with other people who share not only your values but your current frustrations, you'll feel validated, by bearing witness to each other's difficulties, and you can brainstorm the best ways to take action. But be careful that you don't fall into a rut of mutual rumination. There's a fine line between venting to feel better, versus spinning into a dysfunctional, self-perpetuating cycle of inflaming each other, which only makes you feel worse. Finally, look for the types of connections that feel most fulfilling to you. For most of us, that means more than just passively scrolling through social media, which can often make us feel even more helpless and hopeless.

References

Use Emotions to Diagnose Problems and Move Forward, Cambridge University Press.

All-or-Nothing’ Thinking More Common in People with Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation, APS

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