Feeling Powerless due to World Events?

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Does the Covid-19 pandemic have you feeling powerless, and like you can’t control anything anymore? What can you do to not spiral into a sense of helplessness and hopelessness during these troubled times?

Why do I feel so powerless?

The coronavirus is a ‘great unknown’, and fairly unprecedented. Even scientists and world leaders feel powerless at this point.

The problem is that as humans, we have an innate need to feel control. Developmental psychologist Ellen A. Skinner, in her book Perceived Control, Motivation, and Coping, points out that perceptions of control are particularly critical in times of stress, writing:

Perceived control influences whether people actively test hypotheses and strategies, seek information, and plan, or instead lapse into passivity, confusion, avoidance, rumination, and anxiety."

How to handle feeling powerless

The better question becomes, not 'why' you feel powerless. But what can you do to better navigate this feeling?

1. Accept the way you feel.

Not used to feeling out of control? To not being in charge, or able to tell your kids you are cooped up with that everything will be okay, with any real certainty?

For the perfectionists and caretakers amongst us, powerlessness can feel particularly uncomfortable. The first step becomes accepting that we do feel it, instead of wasting precious energy and mental space resisting, or pretending we don’t.

TRY THIS: Apply mindfulness here. Sit quietly, breathe and relax, and then let the feeling of powerlessness arise, staying as still as possible. Note how it feels in your body. Is it as bad as you thought? Do any memories come up? Is this feeling of hopelessness also about unresolved past experiences?

2. Stick to the right time zone.

Speaking of mindfulness, which is all about being in the present moment. Powerlessness thrives off of future assumptions. "If I can’t control this, then that will happen."

None of us know the future, despite educated guesses. But what we do know is what is right in front of us, here and now.

TRY THIS: Sit down and make a list of what you don’t have control of (growing numbers of Covid-19 cases, losing your job) but also what you DO have control of (educating your kids at home, getting yourself as organised as possible, spending time connecting with loved ones). What list is longer?

3. Do what CAN be done.

Hopelessness and powerlessness lead to negative thinking loops and cognitive distortions - thoughts that seem true, but actually warp reality. This can look like black and white thinking (this is the only job I was good at, I will never find another) and doom and gloom (there is no future for my children).

We tell ourselves there is nothing to be done. So we sit back and numb out. Binge watch television, overeat, break out a second bottle of wine. The end result of such negative actions is more negative thoughts and hopelessness, leading to possible depression.

TRY THIS: Brainstorm with friends or a partner what you do have the power to do. Let silly ideas rise up, too, they often free up better ones to come next. Create petitions, write to governments, raise funds to buy medical supplies, help poorer local families access food, shop for the elderly…. ?

4. Compare downwards.

Social comparison theory‘ in psychology suggests that comparing ourselves is a built-in drive we all have. But a meta-analysis of over sixty years of social comparison research showed that most of us use upward comparison, always finding ourselves lacking.

In troubled times and when feeling powerless it is actually more useful to practice downwards comparison’. Notice that others are doing worse than you.

TRY THIS: Make a list of five ways you could be worse off than you are, or of five people who are worst off than you, with less options. If it makes you feel guilty to do so, then rip the paper up afterwards.

5. Find proof you can handle this.

This might be the first time you've felt this powerless. But it won't be the first time you've navigated a really dififcult situation. It's just that stress makes us forget how we can and do cope.

Take a tip here from humanistic talk therapies, which focus on helping you recognise the inner resources and coping tools you already have, and have already excelled with in the past. You then apply them to the here and now.

TRY THIS: Either alone or with a partner, remember times you have navigated difficult experiences. What did you do to get through? How did you surprise yourself? What did it show you about yourself? That you are resilient, a creative thinker, good in a team? How can these tools you already have help you now?

Need someone to confide in, who is unbiased and knows how you feel? Or worried your feeling of helplessness is becoming depression? Book an online therapist now and talk your way forward to feeling better

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