Helpless and Hopeless—Signs of More Than Depression

When the cause of your emotional stress is not internal, what can you do?

Posted Aug 04, 2019

It is Sunday, August 4, and I just received a text from a client: “Can’t believe this. What a horror. No need to call me. Nothing you can do. Nothing therapy can do. Nothing anyone can do?” 

She was responding to the two mass shootings in the United States—one in Ohio, the other in Texas—within the past 24 hours. 

I was in the process of writing about the steady increase of feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the United States in recent months. Now I am adding feelings of horror to the other emotions.

I am currently on vacation. In the weeks leading up to my being away for longer than usual, several clients spoke not about my upcoming departure, but about their ongoing stress

“I’m feeling so hopeless,” said Mary*, a lawyer in her 30s, as we spoke of my upcoming vacation. I asked if she thought it would be helpful to speak to another therapist while I was away. “I don’t think it’ll help,” she said, “but if you want to give me a name, I’ll make an appointment.”

“I’m not going home while you're away,” said Linda*. “I can’t have a civil conversation with my father. He makes my skin crawl when he talks about how much he likes the current government. It’s just better if I stay away.”

“My wife and I have agreed not to talk about politics while you’re on vacation,” said James*, a school administrator. “It just brings us both down too much. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing at all.”

It’s not unusual for clients to talk about how they’re going to deal with a therapist’s vacation, and I generally make arrangements with a colleague to be available for anyone who is having particular difficulties when I’m away. But often at least some of my clients are relieved to have their own vacation from the hard work of therapy. It can also be a time for putting into action some of the work that they’ve done with me. 

This year, however, more people focused on their sense of hopelessness and helplessness—not because I was going to be away, and not because of individual dynamics, but because of the state of affairs in this country. And my tools as a therapist, which are meant to help with personal conflict and psychological struggles, are not enough on their own to take care of this problem.

rf123 stock image 126612495 (S)
Source: rf123 stock image 126612495 (S)

In a recent article in The Washingtonian, Britt Peterson writes, “I spent the last several months talking to nearly two dozen local therapists who described skyrocketing levels of interest in their services. They told me about cases of ordinary stress blossoming into clinical conditions, patients who can’t get through a session without invoking the President’s name, couples and families falling apart over politics.”

Peterson tells us that, according to the 2018 Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, “62 percent of Americans say the current political climate is ‘a significant stressor’ for them; more than two-thirds say the nation’s future is stressing them out—a ‘significant increase’ from 2017, the report says.” 

And so, in some of my recent work, I have found myself turning more and more to the training I received as a social worker. It turns out that I am not alone. Nor is this phenomenon occurring only in the United States.

 35543531 (S)
Source: 123rf Image ID: 35543531 (S)

Researchers in England suggest that in order to build resilience, we must understand “the complex interconnections between individual ability and organizational structures.” Otherwise, say the researchers, we end up not finding solutions, but “reinforcing a culture of blame.”

In this light, I am encouraging clients to find ways to try to make some sort of contribution to changing the things that are upsetting them. Taking action is often a powerful antidote to feeling helpless and hopeless. However, they argue with me that they can’t do anything, or that anything they do will be “too small, too insignificant.”

And here’s where psychodynamic thinking comes into play. As a psychotherapist, I have long advocated for small steps as the only path to real and lasting change. The same, I believe, is true in relation to world events. 

Fighting this overwhelming sense of helplessness requires taking small, perhaps insignificant steps. You might do nothing but save a few plastic bottles from the garbage dump or send a few letters to try to register a few voters. There are many good organizations that you can support financially, but it can also help to join a group where you can join with others even if it means that your individual contribution is small.  Take some time and effort to find one that works for you. 

It might still seem like you’re not doing enough. But if enough of us take small actions, over time, just as in psychotherapy, we might be part of a slow, steady, and significant change. 

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy