What do you do when you can't do anything anymore? There is nothing worse in life than feeling tied hands and feet. Completely gagged. Paralyzed by circumstances. No way out. No loopholes. Impossible to do anything but wait.
In exceptional circumstances that generate high emotional tension or represent a danger to our physical or psychological integrity, the limbic system of the brain takes over. Its two default options are flee or fight. Both involve doing something. To decide. Take a proactive attitude. Try it, at least.
However, there are circumstances where we don't even have these options. The only possibility is paralysis. It is the more expensive alternative in psychological terms, a breeding ground for anger and helplessness.
Why does paralysis occur?
In highly stressful situations, our body responds by triggering a nervous excitement in which the normal relationship between the peripheral nervous system and the brain is disrupted. Our brain activity is focused on the source of emotion, voluntary muscles can become paralyzed, and sensory perceptions are altered, including the sensation of physical pain.
This first reaction is essential to help us assess the degree of danger posed by the threat. Our senses are sharpened to capture all the details as the brain processes them at an above-average speed. But at the same time, the muscles are "paralyzed" to prevent us from making a bad decision dictated by panic.
This first phase of analysis / paralysis is followed by a reactive phase, in which the muscles return to action and we decide which path to take. In fact, freezing is not a passive state, but rather a parasympathetic brake on the motor system that helps us prepare for action.
Paralysis is a common response when the danger is still distant or uncertain, but if we feel the risk increases, our natural reaction is to find an escape route or, failing that, fight. It is an instinctive reaction that is difficult to control. If we see a lion approaching with a threatening attitude, our first reaction will be to run or look for something to defend ourselves with. The same is true when we feel psychologically in danger.
The cost of not being able to do anything
A study conducted at Shanghai Jiao Tong University found that when animals are forced to remain paralyzed under highly stressful conditions, they not only exhibit great anxiety, but later develop symptoms of depression and undergo significant brain changes. The same thing happens to us.
We are not programmed to do nothing in a distressing situation. It costs us. Yet there are circumstances in which we can only hope. Trust others or the course of life.
In these cases, we can feel an enormous sense of helplessness. Helplessness consumes us when we feel we are losing control and not being able to get what we want. Interestingly, impotence is a very intense emotion with the power to stimulate behavior. So it quickly gives way to anger and frustration.
Under these conditions, when we feel trapped in a labyrinth with no way out, we can become extremely irrational and do things we regret.
What to do when you can't do anything?
• Remember that everything passes, even this. When you feel distressed, your rational brain "shuts down" and you can only see through the terrible situation you are experiencing. Everything that exists around you is conditioned by those negative emotions. The world is falling apart and you think you'll never get over it. This adds even more suffering. Instead, remembering that everything passes will help you regain some confidence and strength to face the crisis.
• You don't have to solve everything, just to live with it a little more. Problems usually don't come alone, but are accompanied by more problems. When they accumulate they can become a huge mountain that crushes you under its weight. Obviously, if you are feeling distressed, it is normal that you want it all to end. But this is not the best time to solve all problems. Just think about holding on a little longer.
• Change what you can. Is it really true that you can't do anything? Sometimes the feeling of helplessness comes from not being able to do everything we would like, but there is probably something we can do, even if it is not exactly what we would like. The simple act of doing something will at least partially restore the lost sense of control and give you the peace of mind you need to deal with whatever comes your way.
• Seeking serenity through radical acceptance. Sometimes there are situations that we cannot change. In these cases, however difficult it may be, we are left with no choice but to practice radical acceptance. It means understanding the state of things in the right measure to face them with greater serenity. Fighting lost battles early will only cause you to lose strength and energy that you can use better.
• Hold back your first reaction. When anger, helplessness, and frustration take over, it's important to stop for a moment before taking action. Ask yourself if what you are about to do will really help. Take a minute or sleep on it if you can. Try to assess the situation from the most detached position possible. It's difficult. I know it. But it's worth trying to take that psychological distance. Fall back to regroup.