When trauma hits, we may feel utterly helpless. We may feel powerless, paralyzed, wounded. The trauma may be a physical trauma, such as a car wreck or any kind of abuse; an emotional trauma, such as bullying or poverty; or a community trauma, such as an earthquake or murder, according to Deborah Serani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Smithtown, N.Y.
It may be a single experience or a series of events, she said. Either way, the moment is “so extreme that you’re left feeling completely powerless.”
Helplessness manifests on two levels: On a cognitive level, trauma overwhelms the areas of the brain responsible for problem solving and judgment, Serani said.
“When this happens, you can’t think on your feet, find a solution to make things better, or problem-solve to reduce the grip of the traumatic effect on you.”
On a physical level, trauma paralyzes a person with fear and causes extreme fatigue, she said.
Thankfully, there are many things you can do to reduce feelings of helplessness.
“Psychotherapy is a great way to learn how to manage helplessness,” Serani said. It teaches individuals how to cope healthfully with stress and trauma, she said. Martial arts and self-defense classes also can help.
Below, Serani shared five additional strategies that can help you start chipping away at your helpless feelings.
1. Understand how trauma affects mind and body.
According to Serani, “Trauma physically and mentally impacts our mind and body the moment it happens.” Understanding that our neurobiology triggers us to fight, flee or freeze and how it happens can help you deal with your situation better, she said.
Serani explained the process in this way: “When pressed by the impact of trauma, your mind will work to problem-solve, sending messages to your body, its muscles and organs, to be ready to fight the problem or flee from it. Sometimes trauma causes a third option where your mind dissociates, fragments or shifts into denial. When this happens, your body goes numb, limp or stops in its place like a deer in headlights.”
2. Sharpen your awareness about stressful triggers.
When you are aware of yourself, your environment and your unique triggers, you can find healthy ways to react, thereby reducing your feelings of helplessness, said Serani, author of the books Living with Depression and Depression and Your Child.
She defined stressors or triggers as “personal experiences that worsen your well-being.” To discover your unique triggers, reflect on the issues and experiences that have been upsetting to you, she said.
3. Focus on your self-talk.
“The way you talk to yourself can make you move through trauma better,” said Serani. When it’s unhealthy, self-talk keeps us stuck and makes us feel helpless, she said. She shared these examples: “Why is this happening to me? I can’t believe this! I have the worst luck ever. Nothing in life ever goes my way.”
Healthy self-talk inspires healthy action. It is “proactive and empowering.” Serani shared these examples of healthy self-talk: “What can I do to make this better? This is bad right now, but it won’t always be. I can get through this.”
4. Become attuned to your senses.
Tuning into your senses and learning how to command them helps you develop stronger reaction skills, which helps you reduce helplessness, Serani said. To start sharpening your senses, simply close your eyes, and focus on what you hear. Then focus on what you smell. “Take a deep breath and sense the temperature around you.” Open your eyes, and look at your environment. What do you see?
5. Recognize patterns.
Pinpointing your personal patterns helps you feel empowered and avoid feeling helpless, Serani said. You can do this on a smaller scale by focusing on daily habits. Serani gave these examples: You’re running late, or you didn’t bring enough cash for the day.
Reflect on the events that preceded the circumstance. “Do they share anything similar? Were you pressed for time, rushed or unprepared? Is there a pattern that you can identify that keeps you in a helpless state?”
Feeling powerless is demoralizing. But there are many small steps you can take to reduce feelings of helplessness and focus on healthy action. This may start from better understanding your traumatic situation and personal patterns, practicing compassionate, healthy self-talk and becoming attuned to yourself and your world. And if you’re finding this especially challenging, consider seeking professional help — a powerful way to empower yourself.