The Dangers of Helplessness

Just as there is acute pain and chronic pain, there is acute stress and chronic stress. Acute conditions are temporarily. In a relatively short period of time, they resolve; the body heals, the issue is gone. The biggest challenge in healing arises when conditions become chronic. I know from personal experience that chronic tension can be crippling. In this post, I look at how chronic helplessness contributes to these challenges.

Chronic stress impacts us on every level, including the physical. In my own life, I have been challenged by chronic tension pain (this condition gets many names including Tension Myositis Syndrome and Fibromyalgia). For me, it was to the point that I was certain I had an undiagnosed degenerative disease.

My doctor said I just needed to lose weight. While I understand that carrying extra weight didn’t help matters any, I also know that people of all shapes and sizes struggle with the same conditions. My gut told me that something more was going on. I felt scared and helpless.

Feelings of helplessness can contribute to chronic conditions like mine. This is interesting to consider at a time when a pandemic has many of us feeling helpless. As contemplative practitioners, we might be tempted to look at this situation as an invitation to acknowledge and even embrace our powerlessness – a time of reckoning imploring us to accept just how little control we really have in the world, but is this healthy?

Why Chronic Helplessness is Dangerous

I think we need to be careful. Chronic feelings of helplessness can have a negative impact on our basic wellbeing. Chronic helplessness can upset our endocrine balance and elevate the immunosuppressant hormone cortisol. Obviously, a suppressed immune system is the last thing we need when faced with the dangers of a pandemic.

On a psychological level, chronic helplessness depletes the brain of the vital neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is necessary to feel happy and content. No wonder chronic feelings of helplessness often lead to depression. Depression is also probably not what anyone needs right now. Many of us already have a lot of intense feelings percolating.

Accepting What We Can and Can’t Control

It’s true that we can’t control everything. A certain level of maturity comes with recognizing and accepting this. In fact, there’s a paradox around all of this. The more we try to control, the less control we have. That’s why learning how to let go is vital to spiritual development.

Yet, even “let go and let God” is a form of control. It’s like having the rug pulled out from under us and regaining our footing by entrusting ourselves to a higher power. By turning the control over, we actually regain a sense of control. Perhaps in the wisest way possible.

As Joan Borysenko Ph.D. puts it in her excellent book, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind:

Without the conviction that we have some control – coupled with the realization that we can’t control everything – we have no way to negotiate the tides of life.

Helplessness and the Spiritual Path

In my opinion, healthy control is a good thing. People who feel like they have some control can withstand an enormous amount of change and even thrive on it. The key, as Borysenko indicates, is remembering we can’t control everything. We do need to accept this. Nonetheless, exercising control over this pandemic situation (to the extent that we can) will help those of us who are already prone to falling into despair cope better.

As Borysenko also shares:

Life is filled with changes. It’s whether we can cope with those changes or not that determines whether we will grow with the situation or be overcome by it, whether we will act helplessly or creatively.

Exercising Healthy Control

Here are a few things I’m doing right now to exercise control.

  • Getting out on my bike and exercising more. I have a theory that stronger lungs will serve me well if I do contract COVID-19.
  • Following the basic guidelines like wearing my mask and practicing social distancing. It feels awkward and strange at times, but I know I’m helping to keep others safe too.
  • Taking my “me” time. That’s means meditating, reading, relaxing, and getting on zoom with my kids and grandbabies.

How are you exercising healthy control during this pandemic? Feel free to offer up any suggestions for our readers in the comments section below.

Going Further

I highly recommend Joan Borysenko’s excellent book. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.

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Kimberly Holman

Kimberly Holman is a certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher (MMT) with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Maine and an M.A in religious studies from Naropa University.