Overcoming the feeling of helplessness

When we look out on problems in the world, we might sometimes find ourselves trapped by feelings of helplessness. Our brain can cycle through thoughts of “How can this be happening?” “I feel helpless. What can I even do to help?” and “What does this mean for the future?”

According to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center:

Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.

Research shows that job uncertainty, for example, tends to take a more significant toll on our health than actually losing our job. Similarly, research participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock felt far more anxious and agitated than participants who believed they were definitely going to receive the shock.

It is no surprise, then, that there are entire industries devoted to filling in the blanks of our futures. See, for example, the popularity of astrology apps, or the prestige of management consultancies dedicated to strategic planning. Fundamentalist religions counter anxiety by providing us with unambiguous rules and absolute truths. Conspiracy theories provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena.

When we focus so much of our attention on creating certainty, it takes space away from our ability to take action in ways that help us in the moment. The reality is, we’ll never fully know what the future holds.

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is. Knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.
John Allen Paulos

The feeling of helplessness can lead to rage, despair, and becoming completely numb to life. Many of us were taught growing up through social and educational institutions that our feelings and needs were too much. When our values are challenged now, we don’t know how to act or react.

Reading through Oren Jay Sofer’s “Finding our Voice, Transforming Helplessness” from 2017, this struck a chord with me:

A numb person is a more reliable worker in an economic system that treats human beings and their labor as expendable commodities.

The people in positions of power prefer us to be numb because it keeps us from holding them accountable. It keeps us from enacting change. It keeps us from taking action.

So the question is, how can we overcome feelings of helplessness and find our voice, while also letting go of what we can’t control? How do we keep ourselves from giving up?

Here are five tips to help move through feelings of helplessness:

1. Practice acceptance instead of resistance

We are living through challenging times, and it’s easier to resist than accept this reality. Humans aren’t built to take in the amount of information (especially negative information) that we do on a daily basis.

The truth is, resisting reality prolongs the pain and suffering we experience and keeps us from moving forward.

When I use the word “acceptance,” I don’t mean accepting what’s happening and shrugging it off. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is and moving forward from there. It allows us to see the situation as it is, in the present moment, which gives us the space to see the road ahead. When we resist, we’re paralyzed by uncertainty and fear. Acceptance allows reality to be as it is, while also giving us room to think about what actions we can take to better the future.

Sometimes saying “this is what’s happening” out loud helps me accept the situation as it is. Once you accept, you can take actionable steps when I’m ready.

2. Practice self-compassion

If you’re depleted, you’ve lost your most valuable resource: yourself. Self-care is important: get enough sleep, stop yourself from doomscrolling, go for a walk in nature, etc… It’s important to invest in yourself and your wellbeing, even in times of crisis. It’s hard not to feel selfish when we take a moment to get the rest we need when other people are suffering. When we see our friends sharing posts on social media about the political climate, we feel pressure to join in. It’s important to consider your own personal strengths in these situations. What is the best way for you to contribute? Does this include taking time to rest and recharge, so you can be the best version of yourself when it’s your turn to act?

Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the care and concern you would give a friend when confronted with personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations. It consists of three interacting components, each of which has a positive and negative pole:

  • Self-kindness vs Self-judgment
  • A sense of common humanity vs Isolation
  • Mindfulness vs Over-identification

Research suggests self-compassion is strongly related to psychological wellbeing, personal initiative, motivation, accountability, increased happiness, optimism, and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, neurotic perfectionism, and rumination.Self-compassion involves self-kindness, which refers to being caring and understanding with oneself rather than harshly judgmental. Instead of attacking or berating oneself for personal shortcomings, the self is offered warmth and unconditional acceptance.

It also includes common humanity. This involves recognizing that humans are imperfect, that all people fail, make mistakes, and have serious life challenges. By remembering that imperfection is part of life, we feel less isolated when we are in pain.

Mindfulness is another important aspect of self-compassion. Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion involves being aware of one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignores and avoids nor exaggerates painful thoughts and emotions.

Here’s a quick ~3 minute practice called the self-compassion break that I like to do when I’m going through something difficult. You can listen to the audio here.

  1. Think of a difficult situation or challenge in your life that is causing you stress. If you are new to this practice, it’s better to choose something that is moderately difficult in your life, rather than something overwhelming.
  2. Bring the situation to mind and remember what happened or what you think might happen in the future if the situation is ongoing.
  3. Now say silently to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering.” Acknowledging this is a form of mindfulness—of noticing what is going on for you emotionally in the present moment, without judging that experience as positive or negative. You can also say to yourself, “This is hard” or “This is stressful.” Use whatever statement feels most natural to you.
  4. Next, say silently to yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” This is a recognition of your common humanity with others—that all people have difficulties and challenges, and these experiences give you something in common with the rest of humanity rather than mark you as abnormal or deficient. Other options for this statement include “Other people know what I’m feeling in this moment,” “I’m not alone,” or “We all struggle in our lives.”
  5. Now, put your hands over your heart or somewhere on your body that feels comforting to you. Notice the warmth of your hands on your body. Say silently to yourself, “May I be kind to myself.” You can also consider whether there is another specific phrase that would speak to you and your current situation. Some examples: “May I give myself the compassion that I need,” “May I accept myself as I am,” “May I forgive myself,” “May I be strong,” and “May I be a friend unto myself.”

This practice can be used any time of day or night. If you practice it in moments of relative calm, it might become easier for you to experience the three parts of self-compassion—mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness—when you need them most.

3. Practice being present

Mindfulness is awareness of what’s happening in the present moment without judgment but with acceptance. It includes being aware of your feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and the environment around you through a gentle, nurturing, and balanced lens.

When we practice mindfulness, we tune into the present moment. What are we experiencing right now?

What are we feeling in the body right now? This keeps us from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Being present wakes us up to our own lives. The more aware we are from moment to moment, the more choice we have regarding how we react to our experiences. Much of the time, we run on autopilot.
There is a plethora of research showing the benefits of practicing mindfulness. Here are some reasons why mindfulness can positively affect activism work shared by Berkeley’s GGSC:

  • Mindfulness is good for the body. Mindfulness meditation helps boost our immune system and improves sleep quality.
  • Mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress.
  • Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases the density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
  • Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory, attention skills, and decision-making.
  • Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism. Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
  • Mindfulness affects the way we see ourselves: People who are more mindful have a stronger sense of self and seem to act more in line with their values. They may also have a healthier body image, more secure self-esteem, and more resilience to negative feedback.
  • Mindfulness can help combat bias. Even a brief mindfulness training can reduce our implicit biases and the biased language we use.

4. Regulate our nervous systems

One way to regulate our body is to learn how to activate our vagus nerve, which represents the main component of our parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve helps regulate most of the bodily functions necessary for our health and emotional well-being, and by stimulating this nerve, it sends a message to your body that it’s time to relax and let go of stress. Regular vagal nerve activation can lead to improvements in mood, well-being, and resilience (which we all know are important in order for us to take action). Stimulating the vagus nerve also helps us better manage anxiety and stress when they arise.

Below, you will find the basic exercise from Stanley Rosenberg’s book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve:

  • Lie on your back
  • Interweave your fingers on both hands and place them behind your head
  • Without turning your head, look all the way to the right
  • Remain here until you spontaneously yawn or swallow
  • Return to the neutral state with head and eyes straight ahead
  • Repeat on the left side

There are many simple ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to calm ourselves down. Here are a handful of simple activities you can do at any time:

  • take slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths
  • unclench your jaw and release your shoulders
  • take a walk in nature
  • take a cold shower or splash cold water on your face
  • place an ice pack (or an ice cube) on your chest
  • close your eyes and think about someone you love – what does it feel like to be with them?
  • listen to a relaxing song or sound
  • practice mindfulness meditation
  • laugh out loud
  • hum to yourself
  • gargle water

5. When you want to take action, but feel like there’s nothing you can do: practice active compassion

Active Compassion, also known as Tonglen in Tibetan, means “giving and receiving.” This meditation practice involves mentally taking away the suffering of others while offering them our feelings of compassion and well-being. This form of compassion helps prime us to act out our compassionate concern for others. According to the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, “It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts.” Tonglen helps to awaken the compassion that is “inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.”

As we breathe in, we imagine taking pain and suffering away from others (or ourselves), visualizing it as a heavy smog. When this smog enters our hearts, our compassion dissolves it into light or clean air. We imagine clearing the heavy fog while sending out compassion, happiness, peace, and comfort when we breathe out.

The practice of Tonglen over time helps us face suffering straight on, empowering ourselves to get out of our pain. This process helps us avoid empathic distress, which leads to better compassionate action.

With everything going on in the world (and the access we have to it all), reading the news and looking at social media feels overwhelming. It feels almost impossible not to shut down. When I learned the practice of Tonglen in my Compassion Cultivation Training in 2020, it changed the way I absorbed the events of the world. I started practicing the meditation of breathing in the suffering of others while breathing out compassion. It helped me overcome the feelings of overwhelm, helplessness, and failure that accompany seeing so much pain in the world. In particular, I would practice Tonglen while reading the news or scrolling through social media. This act helped me absorb what was happening in a more productive way.

After practicing for some time, I was able to take a step back and look into ways I could help the situation. Sometimes there is not a glaring solution, but sometimes steps can be taken to learn more, speak up, donate, offer aid, etc. When we can step past ourselves, we can slow down and begin to act. When we recognize the suffering without letting it take over, we can see ourselves and our worth. What can we offer to the world? How can we help enact change? The answers will come to you if you allow yourself this space.

Follow a guided Tonglen meditation here.

By Kristine Claghorn, Head of Creative Partnerships at the GCC.

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