Feeling helpless is one of the most common experiences, accompanying anxiety and depression. Helplessness feels like no matter how hard we try, we can’t change the stressful situations around us. Hopelessness, on the other hand, feels like there’s just no way out, period. So they’re kind of similar.
According to the National Health Interview Survey, 6.1% of individuals feel hopeless and 5.1% report feeling helpless at any given time. That makes more than 1 in 20 Americans! You are definitely not alone in feeling this way, and we’ll show you what steps you can take to combat these feelings, below.
Helplessness often takes form as learned helplessness, because it’s an emotion we pick up through repeated stressful experiences. While struggling with depression and anxiety, we may become conditioned to think that the bad things around us will continue to happen, no matter how hard we try to change them.
Although we could try to make a difference, in the end, why bother? Especially if our past efforts failed or hurt us even more.
First of all, know that helplessness is a natural feeling in certain circumstances. In 1975, psychologist Joe Siegelman conducted an experiment: college students had to perform a series of tests while a loud, distracting noise blared in the background. They were given the option to press a button and stop the noise, though the noise always came back eventually.
While some students dilligently hit the button every time the noise came on, all of them quite trying to stop if over time. It began to feel pointless; even though they had some control over the bad environment, it wasn’t enough for their effort to feel worth it.
As we can see, learned helplessness can occur even on a small scale, even when you do have some control over your life. So it’s no surprise as to why anxiety and depression cause overwhelming feelings of helplessness. There’s also the biological basis of helplessness, explained below.
Learned helplessness also has roots within our biology, specifically in our brain. Serotonin is a chemical in our brain that controls many things, including well-being and emotion. When we experience learned helplessness, serotonin levels spike in an attempt to handle the situation, and then subsequently drop once we start to feel as if we don’t have the control we need.
Activity also spikes in our amygdala, which is the part of the brain that responds to fear. This is a response both the stress of a situation and to the fear that our efforts will be in vain no matter how hard we try.
Attributional styles are the way we perceive the situations we’re in. One theory behind learned helplessness is that it’s related to the attributional styles, or types of perspectives, we usually take. The types of attributional styles that can cause helplessness are divided into three categories:
This is the whether we attribute a negative situation to internal causes versus external causes. It’s the difference between viewing something as our fault (internal), vs. viewing ourself as a victim of an unlucky circumstance (external). An external perspective can stave off helplessness.
This is how we see a situation as permanent, vs. temporary. For example, it’s the difference between “things will always be bad” compared to “things are only bad for now.” The temporary perspective on bad events helps keep strong emotions and overwhelm in-check.
This is how view a situation as global or local. In other words, it’s the difference between “things will be bad everywhere” versus “things are bad here, but there are better places.”
Even though our outlook can seem set in stone, attributional styles are easily managed with self-reflection, peer support, or even cognitive-behavioral treatment that teaches us to reassess our thoughts.
Managing helplessness by changing your whole perspective can be difficult. Thankfully, there are also smaller steps you can take to help.
Helplessness, like depression, can be a vicious cycle. Errands like shopping for groceries or going out for coffee can help break the cycle by giving you a sense of control and autonomy, even if it’s over something small. A small victory is a victory nonetheless!
Helplessness makes us feel like we can’t get anything done. But we can fix this by scheduling an event with friends or helping another friend plan an event. Something as simple as this can help you feel more accomplished and in control of your life.
When you feel like you’re lost in a pit of quicksand, try imagining how things can change in the next few years. Set some goals for yourself that you want to accomplish within a year or two, and map out some potential steps you can take towards that goal. Planning what you can in advance gives you more time to prepare for any missteps along the way, and it gives you a greater sense of control in your own life in general. It can also help by letting you separate yourself from your current feelings of helplessness by recognizing that your life still has potential to change for the better.
It’s on every list, but getting active is one of the simplest ways we can help our brain chemistry. Exercise helps regulate the chemicals in our brain that can affect our mood, and research suggests that it doesn’t need to be a long or exhaustive session. Even a few minutes of activity can help lift feelings of helplessness.
If you constantly feel yourself spiraling, ask a close friend to remind you when you’re sinking into learned helplessness. This may be tough love, but sometimes a wake up call can be just what you need to pull you out of the pit of helplessness. Reaching out is especially helpful if you’re naturally pessimistic, or if you feel yourself falling into some of the more negative attributional styles.
One of the strongest tools available to us is our ability to reflect on what’s going on. When you feel helpless, reflect and try to identify what happened. Were you rushed for time? About to turn in a big project? By recognizing when this happens, you can better understand why you feel helpless and be more prepared if it happens again.
Remember that relearning any skill set takes time. Do your best to continue practicing, and don’t hesitate to reach out to Supportiv to express your struggles and feelings. Your peers can help you work through the hardest times and celebrate your successes.
Written by: Angie Won and Anthony Toves, MS