"If you don’t like where you are, move. You’re not a tree."
I often thought of this quote to be a very liberating and an empowering one. It gives us a not-so-gentle reminder that we have a choice to move away from the negativity, to change, to remove ourselves from something that isn’t acceptable to us. It gives us the insight that the control is with us. That all we need is perhaps a little bit of courage to move away.
But what if, we choose to not move away. What if we take it as our duty to stay? Or what if the other alternative is not really better. While the above approach is a great way to look at things, it is not always pragmatic to apply it. After all, we can’t move away from every adverse circumstance that comes our way, can we?
I have personally faced a number of these situations myself, and have seen many of my clients go through the same. It can be, well, debilitating to say the least. It starts to feel like you have no control, almost like being in tunnel feeling an overwhelming sense of helplessness, and not being able to see the end of it, and sometimes even doubting that there is an end to it.
So what do we do in these situations? And how do we prevent it from being further debilitating? How do we find happiness during those moments? In my experience as a psychologist, and having dealt with a number of clients with this issue, I thought I’d list down a few pointers that can help you cope well in these situations.
As a first step, it would be important to understand and check for learned helplessness. Learned Helplessness was discovered in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman while he was studying the behaviour of dogs. This can lead a person to falsely believe that they are more powerless than they really are. This can lead to them making poor choices, resulting in a worse situation and a vicious cycle of depression sets in.
We often become a victim of this phenomenon of Learned Helplessness without realising it. It is when a person begins to believe that they have no control over a situation, even when they do. It occurs when a person is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the person stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if he/she is utterly helpless to change the situations. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.
The mantra of the person who suffers from Learned Helplessness is: "What's the point in trying?”
For instance, when a person does not vote and the thought process is it doesn’t matter as things never change, or because politicians are evil on both sides, or one vote in several million doesn’t count. Yeah, that’s learned helplessness. There’s a possibility that even you could be a victim of learned form of helplessness when you believe that there is no way out of your present situation. Because sometimes, the light at the end of a tunnel is not an illusion. The tunnel is. It will be important to test the validity of your belief by looking at it with a fresh perspective. Ask yourself if there actually is no way out. Brainstorm with a person you trust. Or, consult a therapist to gain deeper insight into it.
“So, what if, instead of thinking about solving your whole life, you just think about adding additional good things. One at a time. Just let your pile of good things grow.” - Rainbow Rowell
Once you are certain that there’s actually no way out of the situation at the moment, you may not have control over removing the negativity, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t add in some positives, right? It works just like a mathematical equation. Keep adding the positives and you’ll see that the negatives will automatically reduce as the end result.
You can start with something as simple as taking a walk in the park, or pursuing a hobby, gymming, learning a new language. Just any little thing that gives you joy.
Choose what is possible to do on a regular basis. It should ideally be something that you will look forward to, and give you joy for that time being, or at least distract your mind from the negative situation. Who knows you might reach a point when you’re able to neutralise the final outcome too in no time.
Counting Happy Moments
Quite similar to counting your blessings. Except here you are actually recollecting the happy moments of the day over dinner or at bed before sleeping. Often in these helpless situations we end up being oblivious to the good things that are happening; we get so caught up with negativity that we end up overlooking the simple happy moments. Doing this exercise on a regular basis makes us more aware and appreciative of the good things that are happening.
The exercise also gives us an insight on whether we are actually doing anything that can make us happy. Are we making any efforts? So on days when it becomes hard for you to find any happy moment, stop and reflect upon whether you are really doing things that make you happy. If not, then it's time to start actively doing little things that you enjoy. Having a long conversation with a good friend, listening to your favourite song, eating your favourite dish, smelling the flowers, dancing to songs without a care etc. You’d know better what makes you happy. And often it is not in the big things, but in these small little things only that we underestimate.
Keeping a Check on Your Thought Patterns
Dealing with a ‘helpless’ adverse circumstance over a long period of time can often lead to self doubts, and other negative beliefs which may not be accurate. In psychological terms, we call it “cognitive distortions”. Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. They are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realize he or she has the power to change them. Many grow to believe that’s just the way things are.
Cognitive distortions can take a serious toll on one’s mental health, leading to increased stress, depression, and anxiety. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become entrenched and may negatively influence the rational, logical way you make decisions.
For instance, a person might tell themselves, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes — that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization — taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it their very self and identity.