The Trap of Powerlessness

My mind is racing. I can’t focus on anything. I’m exhausted. I can’t handle what I have on my plate right now. I can’t even start or finish anything. My relationships are being affected. I’m anxious about everything. I cry. I’m not myself anymore. I need help.

Maybe you can relate to these thoughts. If you have ever experienced this type of despair, feeling as if your life and emotions are out of your control, you know how powerless it makes you feel. Persistent stress can lead to this sense of powerlessness. All you want to do is avoid the tasks before you because of the fear you will fail or become overwhelmed in the process.

What could you do if you feel powerless?

Powerlessness is a belief that you do not have the authority to act or that you lack power to change. When you have a stressful work environment, family situation or health problem, it’s normal to feel and believe that you do not have the power to act. You may not have control over your work situation, family issues or health problems. That reality can be very overwhelming. That is why the first step towards regaining a sense of power is to accept the things you cannot control and the negative feelings that come with that reality.

Easier said than done. To feel powerless or out of control can be very difficult to accept. But start there and do not allow your thoughts to lead you to shame. When you recognize the things you cannot control, you may feel a sense of shame because of the expectation that you “should” be able to handle everything that comes your way. A person with a perfectionistic view of themselves and the world may struggle with this step. But allow yourself to sit with the thought that there are things you cannot control and refrain from any attempt to get away from it. Mindfulness meditation is a great practice to help get into this mindset (refer to my previous post, The Beauty of Mindfulness). Observe the thoughts that arise and write them down. This step can be very powerful if you have never acknowledged your limitations.

The next step is to observe the feeling of powerlessness as a feeling that you are experiencing. Powerlessness is not who you are, rather it’s how you feel. When you view your feelings as something you are experiencing, you are able to defuse from that emotion. But if you are fused to powerlessness, you will see your life from that perspective. This fusing can lead to lower confidence in your ability to cope with stressors you may face in the future. This step helps you answer the question: how true is your powerlessness? Are you really devoid of any power to act? Allow the reality of your limitations to fuel you to be proactive with what you can control – yourself!

Start by assessing what is important in your life. What have you avoided that is actually important to you? What do you value most? Family? Spirituality? Health? Career? Relationships?

Now explore how you can live out these values to feel more like yourself again. Make small goals and follow the SMART goals model. Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Realistic-Time bound. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting vague or unrealistic goals. How would you know you accomplished the goal? Examples of SMART goals are:

  • Call a friend to get coffee this week.
  • Go to church.
  • Pray for 5 minutes.
  • Make a list of things you’re grateful for.
  • Sit in silence for 5 minutes.
  • Practice Mindfulness for 5 minutes.
  • Read one chapter of an enjoyable book.
  • Disconnect from your phone for 1 hour.
  • Go to the doctor.
  • Go for a 30-minute walk once a week.

Try to accomplish one item from your goal list each week. As you live out your values, you will feel like you regained the power you believed you lost. If you can’t even get out of bed to begin regaining your strength and power, then seek support from friends or family. Pick up the phone and ask for help or schedule an appointment with a therapist. Don’t dwell on the things that are out of your control. The way to get out of a powerless mindset is to make small, healthy choices towards a healthier more fulfilling life, despite your circumstances.

TAAS and TAKS and STAAR……OH MY!

For many young students in Texas these three familiar acronyms represent something much scarier than lions and tigers and bears.

STANDARDIZED TESTING, as we know it today, often leaves students and teachers feeling caught in the tornado nightmare Dorothy experienced in the Wizard of Oz.  Everyone wants to go home.

The cheerful buzz of spring and the excitement of summer peeking around the corner have become overshadowed by the emphasis placed on standardized testing.  The STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness), which replaces the former TAKS test, has promised an increased level of rigor and greater depth of cognitive complexity.

Students and teachers all over Texas are feeling the heat to perform.  An increased number of children, as young as third grade, are presenting signs of test anxiety.  How does one differentiate between normal levels of nervous energy and increased levels of anxiety that can significantly impact performance?   If you notice any of the following symptoms in your child, he or she may be struggling with test anxiety.

  • Physiological: changes in eating patterns, upset stomach, nausea, headaches , increased heart rate, or muscle tension
  • Emotional: changes in mood, such as sadness, anger, frustration, or nervousness; fatigue, cries often, feels helpless, fears failure
  • Cognitive: irrational, negative self-statements (“I don’t get it. I know I will fail.”), reduced self-esteem, difficulty concentrating, negative thoughts about performance

What can parents do to help?

  • Encourage children to replace negative self-talk with positive statements.  For example, if your child says, “Math is my worst subject.  I am not going to pass this test.”  They could replace this thought with, “I have studied hard and will do the best I can on this test.”
  • Practice relaxation.  Encourage children to take long, deep breaths before and during the test.
  • Develop a plan for taking breaks during the test.
  • Provide opportunities for physical exercise at home before test day and encourage stretching during the test.
  • Guide children in developing good study skills and creating a quiet environment to work in at home.
  • Speak with teachers and school counselors to offer support in the classroom and on test day.
  • And of course, don’t forget the basics; make sure children are well rested and properly nourished on test day.

If your child is struggling with anxiety this testing season, please don’t hesitate to contact one of the counselors at HBHC.  We are happy to assist in developing strategies to decrease test anxiety so that your child can step into any testing situation in a calm and confident manner.