On Feeling Helpless

We find ourselves in the midst of a crisis that is affecting us all. Many of us have lost loved ones, many are sick, many have lost livelihoods, and the rest of us are worried about family members, partners, and friends.

And among the people I know, many are struggling with the social distancing arrangements, and profound changes to lifestyle. In the face of the suffering of those directly affected, the rest of us are no doubt the lucky ones by relative comparison. However, we’re all deeply social creatures, and wired for freedom, and it’s no small change for us to be isolated from those we love, and for daily routines to be eroded, and travel restricted. Expanded out across the population, it seems that we should be mindful of the mental health challenge to come, not only for those most directly affected in terms of health and finances, but across the whole population dealing with these changes.

In this situation, everyone has their own way of reacting, their own way of coping. Some might need to reach out more often to close family and friends, others might withdraw. Some might throw themselves into work and personal projects, others might need to slow down and focus on just getting by. Some might find comfort in staying informed and focussing conversation on the crisis, others may be overwhelmed and have to avoid the influx of news and focus inwards, or on other things. It’s important to leave space for and support each other as we all apply our individual coping mechanisms. There is no monopoly on the right way to deal with such a huge and externally enforced shift in our routines, particularly in the short term, and understanding and kindness will go a long way.

We’re in this together, after all.

It’s worth noting, however, that the long term and the short term are likely to require different outlooks. We can all grit our collective teeth and bear unpleasant circumstances for a few weeks, pining for our usual routine but doing what we can to cope in the meantime. However, this a difficult and draining affect, and our background anxiety levels are likely to build the longer this continues. As much as it’s speculation as to how long this situation will last, it seems to be clear at least that there will be a significant period of time still to go. If this is indeed the case, we may well require a shift in mindset.

It’s human nature to thrive, after all, and not merely survive. The longer this goes on, the more pressing will be our need to adapt our desires and goals to the current climate, in order to have some energy to direct and flow in a positive direction. It’s, of course, twee, to say that we should try to find the positives in an overwhelmingly negative situation, but it seems to be true, nonetheless. At all times, we find ourselves in a given situation, with two paths. One to make things better, and one to make things worse, and so it’s clear that this is no choice at all. To this end, I’d like to share some thoughts on how we can best look after ourselves, and each other, in terms of physical and mental health in this situation.

A routine, however basic it sounds, is central to wellbeing for all of us. A good place to start is choosing a time to go to bed and a time to get up. Your mood is in part regulated by your circadian rhythm, and therefore mood is best regulated within the framework of regular sleeping and waking hours. To the same end, it’s important that we eat sufficiently, and at the same times each day. I’d recommend trying to have some breakfast, too. We are feeling enough anxiety right now, and to keep this to a minimum we want to downregulate sources of adrenaline and cortisol. Keeping your body well-fed will help to avoid this fight-or-flight-response induced by low glucose levels. I’m loathe to give more specific dietary advice here, but there are a number of vitamins and minerals which are known to be supportive of mental health. If you’re going to be eating a less varied diet than usual, it may be worth doing some research for your own circumstances to ensure you’re getting what you need.

Of course, it’s a testament to the power of outdoor exercise to the wellbeing of body and mind that it remains one of the allowed reasons to be outside, right up there with retrieving essential food and medical supplies. Therefore make use of this option each day if you can, even a short walk outside is proven to help boost physical and mental health. If you’re usually highly active or aspire to be, there’s no reason to give up on training, we just have to be creative and turn to home workouts and outdoor cardio in lieu of the gym.

Why else is a routine so important? It’s been my experience that our body and mind seem to sense internal dissonance, gaps between desires and actions, and hold that embodied stress physically. Not only is this anxiety a highly unpleasant state, but it’s a vicious energy-sapping cycle that will leave you with no energy to pursue your positive goals, thus worsening the condition. A routine can alleviate this, you get to decide where you’d like to be, make a plan to get there, and turn that plan into a routine, which you then enact. At this point, the dissonance fades. Ideally, you will find goals or hobbies that you can advance or enjoy during this period of lockdown, rather than simply focussing on those you can’t work on right now. This looks different for everybody. Initially, your goal might be to, in the course of a day, have a shower, get dressed, and make a hot meal. This is OK. For others, it might look like doing DIY, baking, learning to cook, reading, practising a musical instrument, or even building a side business. This is OK too. We just need to each make sure that we are moving in a trajectory that leads up and not down, and to be kind to ourselves as we do it. Nobody is operating at full capacity right now.

Another aspect of routine is your environment. You want your environment at first not to hinder your routine, and ultimately to support it. We’re many of us dealing with very makeshift scenarios right now, as we try to turn homes into workplaces, but even dedicating a small amount of time to optimise your living and working environment can make a big difference to the amount of stress and friction you have to deal with as you go about your day. If you can separate your workspace from your living space, and physically enter and leave it at the start and end of your day, this would be an ideal scenario, although not everyone is afforded this luxury.

There’s a space right now for gratitude, also. Taking a mental inventory of all the things you have, all the positives, can help reframe situations that otherwise feel unworkable. Heat, food, a safe environment, relationships, books, entertainment, the ability to exercise or pursue some projects, and to communicate electronically with distant loved ones. All of these are a treasure, and you can find many more. Combined with meditation, I find these two practices massively helpful in dealing with any negativity.

At this time, it’s also crucially important to be mindful of the impact of your phone, or the news. As humans, we are just not capable of processing the intense stream of emotional news that is being broadcast. In evolutionary terms, the time between our social relationships being a handful of people in a small geographical area, to awareness of global events, has been the blink of an eye. Our emotions are there to compel action - a problem is upsetting and therefore we act to solve the problem. Now, the problems we see broadcast are no less upsetting, but we are so far removed from the levers of power, that there is little avenue for our actions to alleviate the suffering. This constant source of permanent stress is dangerous and should be treated as such. Of course, stay informed once or twice a day, but don’t immerse yourself in the inexorable tidal wave of human suffering that is the media right now.

One idea I find valuable in this regard is the idea of ‘Circle of Control’, from Stephen Covey. In this view, everyone has three circles - a circle of control, a circle of influence, and a circle of concern, into which we can sperate each of our individual problems. Problems we can solve directly fit inside the circle of control, problems we can solve indirectly, perhaps with the help of others, in the circle of influence, and problems we cannot influence are placed inside the circle of concern.

Even though this has a bit of a ‘pop self-help’ feel to it, I do believe it’s more profound as a tool than it might initially appear. In life, a feeling of helplessness arises when your circle of concern outstrips our circle of control, when the sources of our problems seem to be far away and untouchable. There are two ways to address this, says this framework, either expand your circle of control, or reduce your circle of concern.

Now, while it’s one thing to abandon a few concerns, like ‘the weather today’, and toss them outside of your circle of concern, it’s not that easy with situations like the one we find ourselves in today. The other side of this coin, and the one I find so valuable, is that it encourages a bias to a thought process that begs the question - how could I help?

It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation like this. Many are suffering, and we’re confined, largely, to home. The good news is that that helplessness is more of an illusion than you think. Of course, it’s not your responsibility to solve the crisis. Other people might be on the front lines, it’s too late to get your medical degree, and you’re allowed to cut yourself slack. But you are far from helpless.

You start by looking after yourself, and I’ve tried to share some thoughts on the basics so far. But then, once that’s in order, you can move on to helping others. You are uniquely placed in this world in terms of your temperament, your location, your experiences, and your relationships. You can therefore have an impact that no-one else can have. If you consider it your goal to use your unique perspective and position to help as many people as possible, and as much as possible, it’s not clear that there is a limit to the amount of good you could do. Helpless is the last thing you are.

Help other people - if there is a better answer to the question of the meaning of life, I am yet to find it. If you want a goal to work on on the days ahead, this is the one to choose.

The empathic among you can look inward for guidance - what you need, others surely do too. Maybe call someone who you care about, take time to check in with friends and family. Try to foster connection - loneliness after all is not merely about the physical absence of others, but more about the absence of meaningful connection. Giving people space to feel heard, and helping them to understand their feelings are valid, can massively alleviate stress. If you can share your thoughts or experiences for others to find comfort and connection in, then do that too. If you work in healthcare or fitness, share some advice. If you can connect people with opportunities for work, try to do so. If there are vulnerable people near you, make sure they have groceries. Use your abilities and areas of expertise such as they are, you don’t need to be a virologist to have an impact.

Finally, if you’re in a position to be able to contribute financially, there are all sorts of organisations that are struggling now. A few have been on my mind recently, and I’ll share them below. Locally, to NI, there is Esther, an organisation that allows you to safely give money straight to those who need it the most. Assisi Animal Sanctuary, who are still having to find a way to care for their animals with little income. Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK, who are supporting those for many of whom this is no doubt an incredibly lonely, confusing, and distressing time. Of course, there are countless other organisations for whom your help, as a volunteer, or as a contributor, would be gratefully received at this time. It seems to me that helping out one that supports a cause close to your heart is both a great way to help others, and to help yourself feel a little bit less helpless.