Coping with Helplessness

The coronavirus has upended the world as we know it. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, already straining our medical system. The resulting fiscal crisis blind-sided the global economy. Whatever your financial situation was a month ago, now, it might be on shaky ground or in a terrifying free-fall. Helplessness is a natural reaction to these shocking events. But we need to learn to cope with our fear to regroup and handle what lies ahead.

Generally, helplessness shows up as despair or rage. When we feel powerless to impact our situation, hopeless distress can consume our energy, leaving us depleted and overwhelmed. We want to give up or run away. Or we unleash our fury and rail against each other to feel temporarily powerful. Our relationships suffer as we snipe at each other.

At its core, helplessness is grief disguised. We are mourning the stability we feel entitled to. We miss the normalcy of our daily routines. There is no going back, but it’s hard to fathom what’s happened, much less cope with it. This shock and denial is the first stage of grief.

The next stages of grief are sadness and anger, the emotional experiences of helplessness. Next is the bargaining stage, where we grapple with if-only regrets. If only we hadn’t gone to that concert and been exposed; if only we’d saved an emergency fund; if only the governments had intervened sooner or differently; if only we’d taken our money out of the markets. The mind searches for something that could have prevented this devastating situation.

Acceptance is the resolution of grief and frees us from helplessness. Once we contend with what cannot be changed, we turn our attention to the things we can control.

Notice that we are always both powerful and powerless — we are never as powerful as we imagine when life is going well or as powerless as we feel in a crisis. The truth lies in the middle, but the mind oversimplifies with all-or-nothing thinking. Grieve the loss of power revealed by the crisis and turn your attention to where you can have an impact.

Have compassion for yourself as you grapple with your grief, while reorienting to what you can control. Most importantly, we are not helpless to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We must collaborate as a community — from a distance — to implement the safety programs of hygiene, separation and testing that will protect our public health. None of us can eradicate this virus alone, but together we can prevent the worst-case scenarios.

While you hunker down, where else do you have control? As best you can, structure your new routine to include social interaction via technology, physical exercise and purposeful activity each day. Learn how to video chat. Develop a home workout routine. Cuddle with your pet. Meditate. Listen to music. Conserve financially. Embrace your staycation. How can you feel accomplished during the unwanted downtime? You might decide to organize your photos, read your accumulated stack of books or learn a foreign language. How can you help? Write letters to seniors quarantined in nearby retirement communities. Support your local small businesses. Reach out to those who are living alone.

Let yourself grieve the impact of COVID-19 on your life and community. As you move through the stages of grief, you will shift from helplessness to acceptance, and you’ll be ready to take action for recovery.

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann

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