Powerlessness may be described as an overwhelming feeling of helplessness or inadequacy in stressful situations – making us more susceptible to anxiety, stress and depression. This may include an inability to exercise our freewill when it comes to expressing opinions, making decisions or asserting our personal choices. We might feel we have no influence over others, who seem to disregard our freedom and independence. Or we might fear confrontation with authority figures – because we fail to assert our boundaries and communicate our needs. Slowly this eats away out our self-confidence and weakens our resilience and ability to solve our own problems. For example, we might feel unable to stand up for ourselves in an argument, voice our concerns in a staff meeting at work or protect our interests with family members for fear of being seen as selfish. We may even seek to please others in an effort to win their approval and favour, while secretly resenting their power over us.
Once this pattern of behaviour becomes embedded, we become trapped and less likely to change our circumstances. Longing for change; but fearing it. Seeking a sense of security that never comes and expecting the worst. Forgetting how to face up to our fears and adapt to change when it comes. This can induce a state of prolonged anxiety and learned-helplessness, which is triggered by association with the original stimuli. Once we become trapped in this spiral of learned helplessness, we feel unable to take on new challenges and continuously anticipate the worst. As worry and anxiety sets in, we lack the autonomy and drive to propel us forward; reverting to repetitive cycles of defensiveness such as avoiding situations, procrastination, emotional withdrawal, panic attacks or angry outbursts.
If we feel unable to solve problems for ourselves, we become more dependent on others, or start to withdraw into ourselves until we become isolated and alone. But what lies behind these avoidant patterns of behaviour and learned helplessness?
Psychological causes of powerlessness
Trauma – some of us may have experienced traumatic events in the past that have obliterated our trust and self-confidence. This reduces our capacity to cope with stress – such as managing conflict or overcoming everyday adversity. It’s possible we learned this as children (when we were most vulnerable to stress) – growing-up in families which were emotionally volatile, abusive or frightening. It’s also possible that we learned to avoid intimacy from our parents – believing it is better to hide our vulnerability rather than express with others. We may have learned to feel wary about the world from highly anxious parents who smothered us and displayed hypervigilant behaviours themselves.
Trauma is by definition, a state of extreme helplessness. And the psychological imprint of trauma can become a permanent feature of our lives, as it rewires the brain to respond disproportionately to stress – freezing, panicking or acting out in anger as we encounter reminders of the original trauma. We may even dissociate or enter a dazed, trance-like state in order to cope by numbing-down our sensations and becoming desensitised to our feelings.
Anxiety/avoidance – some of us learn from an early age to normalise our response to anxiety by avoiding or ignoring the symptoms of stress. This causes an excess build-up of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, undermining how we learn to self-regulate or manage our emotions in childhood: especially intense feelings like fear, distress and anger. Most children are too vulnerable to mobilise a “fight-and-flight response” to stress, so they learn to freeze and internalise stress as intense states excessive worrying or apprehension (like constantly stepping on eggshells).
But freezing in adulthood reduces our capacity to mobilise into action or cope with adversity, by adapting to change. It induces feelings of extreme detachment (dissociation) and patterns of avoidant behaviour in an effort to seek relief, but it also reduces our threshold of tolerance for stress and leaves us feeling even more helpless. We can even become clingy or needy with others and fear being abandoned, just when we feel most vulnerable.
Depression – when we experience long-term depression we can become detached and withdrawn, losing connection with ourselves and others, yet feeling unable to reach out for help. No matter what course of action we take, we become convinced that no one else cares or understands our difficulties. We feel judged and alone – longing for change, but convinced we are powerless to act. Our sense of isolation increases and tends to overwhelm us until we become more detached. This can lead to despair, a creeping sense of dread, or angry outbursts in order to defend against powerlessness.
Learning to feel connected and empowered
As an antidote to powerlessness, we have to become more connected to ourselves, grounded in our own experience and more present in the moment. This means learning to become more mindful of our physical sensations, emotional states and practising mindfulness exercises to improve our self-confidence and sense of empowerment. As we regain our self-worth we no longer feel so helpless.
Grounding techniques – there are a number of grounding techniques you can learn to decrease feelings of hyperarousal and helplessness, as you connect to yourself and the present moment. These include anchoring yourself to the floor, finding your centre of gravity and stabilising your body’s core to support your spine, your central nervous system and feel more upright. Feeling strong and stable in ourselves sends automatic signals to the brain – telling it you feel much stronger, supple and confident in your body’s movements. Toning and strengthening your muscles, stretching out and releasing the tension in your back, neck and shoulders, allows you to instinctively let go of stress. This also includes being in the here-and-now, using as many senses as possible to reconnect to the present. You may do this in a safe place, like a room of your own, your garden or in a natural space like a park surrounded by living plants and animals. There you are exposed to the elements, the weather and the natural features of your environment – feeling the sunlight, wind and rain; standing on the earth and grass beneath your feet; developing your awareness of the smell of wet leaves, breathing in the air and the sound of birdsong.
*always consult your doctor or physiotherapist about these exercises, especially if you have injuries, arthritis or other physiological conditions
Exercise 1 - stand with your feet wide apart. Firmly press your toes, heels and balls of your feet into the floor, until you feel anchored. Bend your knees slightly, and gently sweep your hips from side to side as if you were surfing, until you find your centre of gravity (somewhere inside your pelvic region above your coccyx). Stabilise your position with your thighs. Drop your shoulders and raise your head up. Be aware of your body weight, stability, flexibility, muscle-tone and upright spine.
Exercise 2 – stretch out the muscles in your lower lumber region at the bottom of your spine. Slowly bend forward, hang your hands over your slightly bent knees, or place them on your hips as you stretch out your back muscles. Be aware of the slight burn in your tendons and ligaments, as they very slowly stretch out, giving a sense of elasticity, suppleness and fluidity. Stretch out the ligaments and muscles in your upper spine by pulling your head down, gently and firmly with both hands behind you head. And slowly, gently pull your head from side-to-side. Holding the stretch for a few moments, in the tendons between you neck and shoulders. Turn your head very slowly from side-to-side, looking as far round behind you as possible without overstretching. Cross your arms and hold your chest like an Egyptian pharaoh, turning from your hips and then your head from side-to-side. Stretch the tendon in your shoulder blade; by bending and crossing one arm over your chest and pulling firmly but gently from the elbow.
Exercise 3 – pushing and pulling. Place one foot in front of the other and lean forward, placing your hands into a wall or against the door frame. Bend both knees, and push from your back leg; using your front leg to steady you. Ensure that your shoulders are parallel to your hands as you push slow and hard against the door frame.
Exercise 4 – hands and squeezing. Curl the fingers in both your hands and place one hand over the other, linking your curled fingers, then pull firmly but without moving your hands. Do this a few times and hold your grip. Next place your hands together in a prayer position, with your elbows out, pushing your palms firmly together and holding them together a few moments. Clasp both hands together, interlinking your fingers and apply pressure to the grip on both hands. Use a stress ball, Chinese steel stress balls, or turn a coin between your fingers.
Exercise 5 – punching and kicking. Either get a leather boxing bag or use a cloth-sack or pillow filled with clothes. Start to punch or kick it in a firm, aggressive, but measured manner; focussing on your speed, accuracy, power and the fluidity of your movement, rather than brute-strength.
Exercise 6 – five senses exercise. Go through a routine practice of paying attention to each one of your five senses. Find a quiet room away from others, so you can relax and focus. Close your eyes. Start by listening – to the traffic, your breath, a bird, the quiet of a room. Next feel – the stirring of the atmosphere, a breeze, the fabric of your clothes, the sofa, the tension in your body. Next smell – the odour of the room, body odour, some flowers, the scent of perfume. Next taste – a fruit, a sweet, something spicy, a dry roasted nut. Finally, see – the play of light and shadow in the clouds, a dimly lit room, the layers of colour in a textile. Come to your senses.
Exercise 7 – tense and release. Starting with your toes and moving up your body to the tip of your head, slowly tense, contract and release the muscles throughout as you notice the sensations these create. Toes, feet, calves, shins, thighs, hams, buttocks, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck, face and head.
Exercise 8 – body scan. Slowly, gently and without anxiety we might pay attention to the somatic sensations created in our bodies – observing feelings such as our breathing, heartrate, body temperature, muscle tension or relief, levels of hydration, levels of pain or pleasure in our joints, tendons, head, neck and shoulders.
Exercise 9 - creating anchors. Anchors are places, objects or people whom we feel safe with. An anchor can be a room or a place outdoors which we associate with safe and secure feelings, evoking memories from childhood, free from traumatic reminders. Anchors can also be precious or valued objects, such as a photo, a candle, stones or even a soft cushion, which we find soothing to hold or observe. Occasionally, we might also turn to a trusted loved one for affection, holding or reassurance.