Episode 30

Published on:

3rd Feb 2023

8 Ways to Combat a Sense of Helplessness

Have world events gotten you down? Or maybe just events in your own life? A sense of helplessness is a common response when problems seem bigger than we can manage. Today we go over eight ways to help feel more in control of your life, get more energy, and have more hope. And while we can't solve all of the world's ills (or even get those car warranty scams to stop spamming your phone), we can change our mindset just a bit to give us more autonomy, one small step at a time.

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Dr. Andrea Bonior: Does world news, or even just things in your own life, ever make you feel really helpless? Might it take you to a dark place at times where you feel like there's nothing you can do to make a difference and it sometimes starts to look like hopelessness? The news has been tough lately, for quite a while, in fact. So today we're talking about some small but meaningful steps to combat a sense of helplessness. How can we feel like what we do and how we spend our days can make a difference, if certain problems in the world feel far beyond our ability to change? If you feel your energy flagging, or your sense of optimism diminishing, or your sense of futility growing, you'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check. Welcome. It's good to have you here. I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about how to play the opening piano chords to Still Not a Player by Big Punisher.

Okay, let's get to it. So it feels like we are at a stage where, at least in the United States, the news is getting particularly tough to take. Honestly, I can't really remember a time in the past few years where we've been that far from that feeling. Whether it's horrifying acts of violence, concerning rollbacks of civil rights, increasing polarization, worrisome new variants of COVID there seems to be no limit of things that feel too big and too dark. It can make you want to give up and turn away and stop caring. I know we've talked about this balance a little bit in the episode about getting rid of the nonsense of self care with Anna Borges. We've talked about this balance of nourishing yourself enough to still bear witness and to not have to turn away. To strike a middle ground between oversaturating yourself with constant rumination about the news and a constant bombardment of awful images and horrible headlines that make you burn out and weaken you significantly versus tuning it all out and not considering yourself part of the universe and not caring and turning off your compassion, refusing to bear witness to what's going on, being completely uninformed. There is a balance in there somewhere. And if you're interested in what that balance looks like overall, definitely take a listen to that self care episode. Because I truly believe that we need to get rid of some of the BS of self care. That it doesn't have to be selfish, that it doesn't have to be about a spa treatment, but it can be about setting boundaries and taking steps each day to get proper sleep and to laugh when you can with friends, and to turn off your phone and set limits on things that are wearing you down too much. That's a much larger conversation and I was glad to start it with Anna on, um, that episode. But what we're talking about here, it's more specific things about what you can do in the day to day actionable, steps that can make you feel less helpless in the moment. Helplessness really is cognitive when you drill down to it. It's a perspective. It's a way of interpreting what your sense of control is. In particular. It's feeling like you don't have a lot of control. It's feeling like you can't make a difference, that you don't have any autonomy. Helplessness is a diminished sense of what we would call self efficacy. Now, it doesn't necessarily tell you anything about your emotional state. So much of the bad news of the world brings a lot of feelings, from fear to rage to grief. Sometimes just a sense of numbness that comes from burnout, sometimes a sense of shame. Some of these feelings even can happen at the same time. But when we can combat a little bit of that cognitive state, that sense of helplessness, those thoughts, we can better manage those emotions that tend to follow from it. Because a sense of control helps boost our hope. It helps boost our optimism, the idea that we can make a difference, which in turn, helps us feel less afraid. It helps us channel our anger into energy for a specific path or a specific goal. It helps us find the meaning of our sadness, gives us insight into it, which in turn, can give our sadness a purpose. So I have some specific ideas about combating that helplessness and the ripple effects that come from it, and how the small changes that we make can really help in the day to day. Of course, I can't pretend to have solutions to so many of the ills in the world. If I did, I would hope that I'd be having an audience in some wooden, lacquered congressional office where people were wearing blazers with fancy pins attached to them, rather than me sitting here in a closet buffered with ratty blankets, wearing a sweatshirt I got free in a promotion my sophomore year of college. So I'm not here to propose solutions for world peace, because I don't have them. But what I can do, even if I am wearing a strikingly unattractive sweatshirt, is talk about what psychological science says can help us individually in our day to day lives, supporting us and feeling less helpless when the world is raging. And I can talk about how to channel our most uncomfortable emotions into something that can make a little bit of a positive difference and how to function and engage with our lives as they are right now, not as we wish they would be. So if you feel like you could use a little support in doing that, then here are some ways to start. Number one, acknowledge your feelings and label them by name. I know you are so tired of hearing me talk about labeling your feelings and acknowledging your feelings, maybe hearing me say that even makes you feel more helpless. But hear me out for a second. If this isn't the first time you've heard me talk about it, then you know how I'm always pointing to research that giving your emotions a voice and labeling them helps those emotions feel more manageable. It helps connect us to other people, and it helps us learn from what the emotions can teach us. But this is particularly important with a sense of helplessness, because part of what compounds a sense of helplessness is that idea that we can't manage our emotional experiences. Either that they're going to be too overwhelming, that the problems of the world are so great that they're going to give us a level of stress that we can't handle. So when we can bring ourselves to say, wow, I am so effing sad about what I just saw that I can't even enjoy the show that I usually like to watch. Or I can't believe that that group is doing that. And that makes me so angry. And it's spilling into how I feel about the driver that just cut me off. If we can actually label that and acknowledge it, it takes away a layer of judgment about how our emotions affect us. It destigmatizes us as human beings who have feelings. And when we understand our feelings better, it makes them less threatening. So, for example, it's not that I'm going to be trapped in this feeling forever. It's that I'm in an anxious mood because of what I just saw and how it makes me fear for the state of our country. Honestly, pausing and acknowledging our emotions is tough because some of us feel a jolt of power. If we rush toward action, like, if we feel so angry, then it just feels good to shout right away. Or if we feel fear, we're tempted just to run away from what we're scared of. But pausing and labeling our feelings empowers us to not be thrown off balance by them and to not choose actions that are going to be detrimental. It helps illuminate paths toward managing our feelings more functionally. There is no shame in having intense emotions. Pretending that we're not bothered by them only denies us the opportunity to give those feelings a purpose and to let those feelings teach us something. And when we pause and acknowledge our feelings, our strategies tend to be better to manage them rather than if we're just acting in a knee jerk reaction to the intensity of our feelings. Number two, reconnect with your values. Another thing you hear me talk about a lot on this show if you're a regular listener, and if you are, thank you. And if you're not, or you were and now you're about to not be, thank you, too. Anyway, you've heard about values a lot from me, and I'm not talking about them in the sense of holding yourself to some rigid superficial standard that if you fail to properly present yourself in a certain way, then oh, it's a tragedy. I'm talking about really listening to yourself, about what matters to you uniquely, about what guideposts and priorities give you a sense of purpose. I'm talking about the really important things that maybe at the end of your life you'll feel glad that you devoted time and attention to, that the way that you lived was in accordance with this sense of what matters. Values are so important when you feel a sense of helplessness. Because one thing you can always, always do is act in accordance to your values, even if it doesn't make a difference to the external world. It is something that you can do that makes a difference even in a tiny way. Because first of all, it may very well put some goodness out there into the world, even in a small way. Like if your values are kindness and patience. And for that 5 seconds, you held the elevator. For that harried mom who was pushing her stroller, you gave her the message that she's raising her child in a place where at least some people still do look out for each other. Or m even just thinking in terms of what you're teaching yourself when you choose to act in accordance to your values, it makes it just a little bit easier to do that same good act next time. And it solidifies it a little bit more in your heart and your mind. In times of really awful 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 the rights that we used to take for granted may be taken away from us. But what you choose is your values cannot be taken away by anyone. You decide where your sense of purpose comes from. You determine what to make of recent events. 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're bothered by injustice, what is that highlight about which values are important to you? By values I mean anything from honesty, to truth, to adventure, to love, from compassion, to justice, to grace, to patience, to kindness, to curiosity. Research shows that living in close accordance with our values can help us weather difficult times with more resilience. Number three, choose one small action that helps make you feel in control. So if the world feels like a burning bus careening down a mountain cliff, and that downward spiral feels completely like it's out of your control, even a simple act of reestablishing a tiny bit of control over your life can be helpful. Now, this is not the same thing as trying to get control where you realistically 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'll organize your kitchen's junk drawer. I feel like I should make junk drawer plural there. If I'm talking about my situation, perhaps it's something more fun, like getting your hair cut or scheduling a lunch with a friend. Again, 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 that helps you build the strength to move forward and to put some good back into the world. And this stuff does not have to be profound in order to get learned. Helplessness not to sink in as a big problem that permanently, significantly alters your worldview. Show yourself the ways that you're not helpless even with tiny little things. You'll take care of that one task. You'll make a nice meal that nourishes you. You'll make a friend smile. This is just about chipping away. If there's a big helplessness helplessness with a capital H, you can make it just a little bit smaller by getting rid of some of the lowercase helplessness helplessness is. Has anyone ever tried to create a plural of helplessness? Perhaps I am a pioneer in the realm of singular versus plural discourse. See small things you felt like you couldn't do, maybe they're in reach. Number four, identify and counteract cognitive distortions. So we referred before to the fact that helplessness is something of a cognition. It's an interpretation, it's a thought pattern, it's a perspective. Oftentimes it's a distortion, it's inaccurate, it's invalid and it's made worse by other distortions. All or none thinking comes to mind here the idea that if one little thing is bad in the world, then everything is that if things don't particularly feel good now, they'll stay that way forever. That if I can't fully change a worldwide problem, I shouldn't even try to make a difference in my neighborhood, catastrophizing is related to this. That's another distortion. That the negative is so huge that it will never improve. That a setback means all is lost. There are so many cognitive distortions. No doubt we'll have an episode just on those someday. But others that come to mind as being related to helplessness are jumping to conclusions or what the great Aaron Beck would have called arbitrary inference. That's of course, assuming for instance, that if you see something on the news about a certain group of people, then it represents everybody. Or taking one small thing you see on social media and assuming that it is true or the distortion of confirmation bias, the fact that if you start to believe that it's mainly bad in the world, then that's what you're going to see. You'll turn your attention to the awful stuff going on and discount or not, notice in the first place the good stuff. This is, of course, made so much worse by the algorithms of our smartphone overlords these devices that determine what we will be exposed to over and over and over again if we're on social media or even if we're just reading articles online and what we'll then see more of and let become our reality. Emotional reasoning is another cognitive distortion tied to helplessness. If I feel this bad about the world, it must be because it's truly a bad place. If I'm sad sometimes when I wake up in the morning because of that issue I'm concerned about, then it must be that there's no light or joy to be found in anything related to the work being done on that issue. There's probably a dozen more cognitive distortions we could dive deep into. And yes, that's the reason I'm so fun at parties. But the point is, start recognizing the lenses that you're looking through and remind yourself that they might not be accurate and that they might be making you feel even more distressed because there's a distortion there. Number five, connect with others in solidarity, but in movement toward action, not rumination. Meaningful connection with others is another thing you've heard me talk about a lot. It's so important for our physical and emotional health. Quality social support not only heightens the feeling of positive emotions, but it helps combat our most difficult feelings when we're down. 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. Just be careful that you don't fall into a rut of mutual rumination. There's sometimes 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. So look for the types of connections that feel most fulfilling to you. Who can I talk about this stuff with? Maybe it's not always who you expect. Maybe it's not your closest friends, but it's somebody that you know who's interested in the same ideas or working on the same issue, or who has the same sardonic take on what's going on. Maybe it's not always your family, but it's somebody who likes to talk about the same specific thing you're struggling with and just seems to get it a little bit more. I just want to remind you that for most of us, connection means more than just scrolling through social media, which can often make us feel even more helpless and helpless not just because of the algorithms, but because we compare ourselves to others or we feel too passive. Social media can also just be sticking your head in the sand, because now we've spent 45 minutes scrolling through other people's random stuff that didn't actually bring us joy and just makes us feel guilty for spending that time on nothing. And yes, there are plenty of ways that scrolling through social media might uplift us or make us laugh, or show us the good, or inspire us. But I think you know that when you see it. And it's not the typical pattern of just passively scrolling. The truth is, if we're talking about forming meaningful connections and keeping them in good working order, it usually doesn't start with the word scrolling. Number six, keep up your physical energy through taking care of yourself. So this is the one of my suggestions that really does have to do with the basics of self care. And again, you can revisit that episode with Anna Borges if you're so inclined. What we're talking about here is really prioritizing sleep. We're talking about bringing sunlight into your life, moving your body, having nourishing meals, all of these things. Taking care of the basics as uh, in really allowing yourself to prioritize them with time and attention. All of these things help keep you stronger, which of course improves your perception of helplessness because you actually do feel like you have more energy and stamina, because you do. And you're in a slightly more optimistic mood, most likely because you're not threatened as much. I know we've talked about that research before that when you're under slept, you are objectively more hypersensitive to threat. You're more fearful and negative. That was an evolutionary adaptation that helped keep us alive way back in the days when something was going to be nulling on us. To give yourself permission to prioritize these things is so important. And I know it's hard, it's a paradox really, because the worse the world seems, the easier it is to say, well, I shouldn't be worried about taking care of myself right now. But remember, the stronger that you can keep yourself, the more you actually have to give, the more you can make a difference if you choose to, and the less likely you are to have to turn away because you're burnt out. Number seven, consider the role of laughter. You've probably noticed that I've had some very funny people on this podcast and that I make some pretty unfunny jokes at times just as an attempt to keep humor a priority. And I know you're saying, well, if your jokes think that's not humor, but it's the attempt that matters, right? The truth is, laughter is so good for us and it doesn't have to be mutually exclusive from dealing with the seriousness of world affairs. I had a student say something interesting the other day about laughter and crying. How when you laugh so hard that you cry, that's pretty understood and acceptable. But it's rarely deemed appropriate to be crying and then have that turn into laughter, even though laughter and crying clearly can go together in both directions. Uh, why do we accept one direction much more than the other? It was an intriguing point and I'm definitely one who enjoys both laughing so hard that I cry, and also those sweet moments where you're crying with somebody, but it turns into laughter. So why is there a difference in how we see those things? I'm guessing it's because there's an element of the sense of respect that laughter can sometimes be viewed as fundamentally frivolous and disrespectful. And of course, it's true that in certain settings, laughter would be disrespectful. We've got to keep it in check in certain times. I once hurt my neck because I was trying so hard to stifle laughter in a setting where it might have been deemed offensive or signed that I wasn't taking the situation seriously enough to show that I found something funny. No, it was not a therapy session, I promise. It was a situation with my husband. And just the fact that I knew that he was also trying not to laugh was making it even harder for me to not laugh. And then he could tell I was doing my best to hold it together and that made him closer to the verge of erupting and laughter in this somewhat inappropriate situation. And I could just sense that he was on the verge even without directly looking at him. That tension. I'm sorry, but that's just one of the sweet moments in life. And if you keep it in check, it's not disrespectful. But I just love those moments of laughter threatening to make you lose your composure, or in those situations where you just let it all go and you just let yourself laugh with abandon. Those are glorious. But it does speak to this fact that laughter can be seen as fundamentally inappropriate in certain settings. And of course, crying out of sadness can be seen as inappropriate too. But I don't think it's thought of as being disrespectful in the same way, because crying is thought of as being fundamentally serious enough anyway. This is a long winded way of saying that I think societally we often shun laughter when we shouldn't. I don't think laughter has to be fundamentally frivolous or superficial. I don't think it has to mean that we don't take something seriously. Dark humor and satire, those can lead to social change. They can shine a light on meaningful issues. This is what we just talked about with comedian extraordinaire Angelina Spicer, which included some of the funniest moments so far on this podcast. It didn't take away from her story of postpartum depression or the activism that she does. It enhanced it. So I wish we gave laughter more respect. It can connect us, it can empower us, it can reduce our stress, it can help us see that there is hope. It has lots of physical benefits as well. So when we think about feeling helpless against the world, laughter can be a really good coping mechanism. And it doesn't mean that you don't care enough. It can be a reflection of how much you care so embrace the laughter, only slightly inappropriately when you can, and don't feel guilty about it. And finally, number eight, seek out stories of hope. I wanted to end with some hope, literally. Ask yourself where you are inspired, where you find stories of hope. Maybe it's seeking out the places online that will feed you a constant diet of good news. Because good news is out there, and it doesn't have to be fake good news. Like, oh, here's this heartwarming story that my Uncle Frank has sent everyone in his contact list, and it's so clearly made up that it's actually more of a bummer than a good story. I'm talking about real stuff. Here are people making changes. Here's an eight year old who raised money for cancer research. Here's a person who went above and beyond to save an animal. Here's how the science is helping us solve a particular problem. Rather than just being used to make us more addicted to our smartphones. Here are the heroes that remind us that there's light in the world. Here are the helpers to revisit the Mr. Rogers quote that I talked about on yet another episode. That was the, um, oh, the pandemic made me hate people episode. That listener Q and A, which, now that I think of it, good thing this is dawning on me on the last of the eight tips. That episode might be beneficial for anybody feeling particularly helpless as well. Seek out little bits of hope where you can find it, because the research tells us that hope doesn't have to be some magic, inspirational trait that appears in some of us and not others. We can cultivate hope. We can build that muscle. I have so much hope for hope that I wrote my dissertation on it. It's a little strange, sort of peripheral turn, because I did a specific application of hope in terms of athletic performance anxiety. But hope is meaningful across the board, and if you can get just a little glimpse of it, that's going to make a huge difference in your sense of helplessness. So, speaking of hope, I hope some of these tools are helpful. Again, it's about fighting the all or none thinking that says, why try anything at all if everything feels helpless? Because little changes do matter, and little things in life can bring meaning. And your life and your joy and your laughter and your connections and your goals and your dreams and your values, they all matter immensely. And I hope that you can feel that just a little bit more right now. Or maybe you're really struggling with this, or struggling with parts of this. If that's the case, reach out to me. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @BaggageCheckPodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests, and, you know, you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered by Daniel Merrity and my studio security? It's Buster the dog. Until next time. Take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every Tuesday and Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.