We've all had those moments when there is so much to get done, we don't know where to begin. When those feelings of overwhelm start rising and threatening to make us lose our sh!t. Literally everything has to be done right now, so you can’t do anything!
On the other side of the coin is when it feels like there’s nothing we can do even though we need and want to. When a dear friend has a bad breakup (or when the Supreme Court rolls back decades worth of progress). And we wish we could change it! But we don’t know how.
In each of these situations what feels problematic is the powerlessness. Our nervous system doesn’t do well with feeling helpless, because from an evolutionary perspective if at any time we were not the strongest and most capable we would probably end up dead.
So we evolved in such a way that when our nervous system detects a situation that we are incapable of controlling, it reacts in ways that don’t feel particularly pleasant.
Some of my clients totally shut down when they feel powerless (although they may not realize that’s what they’re feeling in the moment). They try to lose themselves in mobile games and YouTube videos to numb out and avoid the feeling. Or comfort themselves with food, drugs, or alcohol.
Others of my clients get angry. They start yelling and swearing at anything and anyone—even inanimate objects—who dared get in their way. It’s like they’re trying to attack the feeling, but because they can’t, they attack everything else instead.
For me, the yelling is all in my head. When I feel powerless it’s like there’s someone screaming inside my brain, and my arms and legs start twitching in the hopes of doing something. But I’ve learned (from research and experimentation, as well as watching my clients’ success) that when these feelings begin, what we really need to do is remind our nervous system who’s boss.
If you find yourself feeling powerless, try this:
1. Look around you.
Focusing on our physical world rather than our mental world changes the parts of our brain that are activated, and can help reduce the feelings of overwhelm that stem from helplessness.
2. Choose one thing you can do – to improve your body, your environment, or your relationships.
When we can find a positive impact to make it helps our nervous system see that we’re not powerless. Even if the thing we do is unrelated to the thing that evoked the feelings to begin with. Our nervous system doesn’t have that specific a filter, it just wants to know that there’s something we can do.
3. When you do the thing, reflect on having done it.
Whether it’s expressing gratitude for your skills and awareness, or celebrating and patting yourself on the back, or just recognizing it’s done. This activates our internal reward centers, which both provides some stress-relieving hormones as well as helps rewire our brains to create more resilience. So we’re less likely to experience those overwhelm feelings moving forward.
I usually call #2 “the next right thing”. As a reminder that there is only *one* thing that needs to be done: the next thing. After that something else will be the next right thing. So when feeling powerless, look around, and ask “What’s the next right thing?” Invariably something will stand out.
It SUCKS to feel powerless. It physically hurts. It’s draining. And if we’ve spent most of our lives contending with it (especially for those who often felt helpless as children) we’ve almost certainly developed some coping mechanisms that don’t serve us.
But the good news is there’s always something we can do, to overcome those feels. And thanks to neuroplasticity (#PracticeMakesPathways) we can rewire our brains so that they happen less and less often.
If you want to dig deeper into this process, and develop habits that make you feel powerful instead of powerless, check out Reclaiming Hope! Its five snackable sessions will give you the tools you need.