What Therapists Personally Do When They Feel Powerless

So many events in the world feel out of our control right now. Here's how the pros cope.

Feeling powerless is a desperate, overwhelming sensation, yet one that’s very much embedded in the human experience – especially lately. Many are facing this crippling, paralysing reaction, thanks to war, the pandemic, attacks on women’s rights and so many more events seemingly out of our control.

This emotion can affect anyone, including the therapists who often help others work through it.

“As a therapist, a lot of people assume that I have it all together, or don’t experience mental health challenges myself – which couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Rachel Wright, a licensed therapist in New York. “Not only do I have diagnosed major depressive disorder and panic disorder, but I also have times where I feel powerless and hopeless. While I can show up for my own clients, I sometimes struggle to show up for myself.”

Below, Wright and other therapists share their go-to coping tips for when they’re feeling powerless:

Schedule an appointment with a therapist

They practice what they preach. Wright said therapy is a core component in mental health hygiene, and she’s not alone in this belief. Dr. Paul Poulakos, a board-certified psychiatrist in New York, pointed out that therapy can help in situations when you’re feeling hopeless and are struggling to navigate that.

“If you are not coping with your own mental health, it makes being empathetic very difficult, as well as burnout being more probable,” Poulakos said. “More specifically, [therapy] can assist us in reframing our circumstances and the negative thinking that often leaves us feeling hopeless or powerless.”

Say no to anything that is going to add to your emotion right now

Poulakos said he cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have boundaries when you’re feeling hopeless. “Learn how to say no and make sure you are doing it once in a while,” he said. “If I ever even start to feel selfish for saying no to things, this reminds me to take inventory and question whether I’m setting boundaries.”

These boundaries can be as simple as taking a few moments to yourself in the middle of the day, or taking some time off work. “Whether it be for a day or for a month, taking a vacation does not always need to be an extreme and costly trip ― sometimes closing the laptop and unplugging is all you need,” Poulakos said.

Establish your “core four”

Identify four activities that help you to feel “grounded, connected and happy,” said Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist based in California.

For example, yours could be cycling, interior design, fostering dogs and traveling. One of his personal tools is building something, like home projects.

Terri Cole, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss, said her core activities include mindful movement like yoga, baking, journaling and getting out in nature.

Therapist Alfiee Breland-Noble, founder of The AAKOMA Project and host of the Couched in Color podcast, also finds that spending time in nature is therapeutic and calming, and says this is one of her first lines of attack against feelings of powerlessness. “I set my intention on being positive, and find activities for the remainder of the day that help me maintain my peace,” she said.

Spending time doing an activity you love will help you feel more in control in the moment.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Spending time doing an activity you love will help you feel more in control in the moment.

Find a way to burn off anxious energy

“Exercise is so helpful in blowing off steam,” said Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a double board-certified psychiatrist and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.

Talley said intensive exercise is one of his “constant go-to” stress relievers. “When things even begin to feel over the top, I’ll put extra intensity into my workouts,” he said. Think: heavy weight training, HIIT or judo (some of his favorites).

If that’s not your thing, try some gentle movement, like walking, biking, swimming or yoga. Moving your body may help expel some of the stress that’s physically building up inside.

Go somewhere calming without your phone

It can be easy to doomscroll into oblivion when there are events happening in the world that you have no power over. Breaks are necessary for survival. Try spending some time in a relaxing place where you don’t have access to constant information.

Dimitriu personally enjoys sitting in a steam room or sauna. “These are becoming [some of] the few places you can sit without access to your phone,” he said. “I’ve had some amazing insights, peaceful meditation, and mind relaxation in the quiet silence of a steam room. The heat helps, too.”

Spend a few moments focusing on something that makes you feel uplifted

This could be practising a skill you know you excel at, leaning into your spirituality or faith (which means something different to everyone), or reading a book or poem that speaks to you.

Breland-Noble uses mantras. Simple phrases with powerful messages, these short sentences provide meaning and hope. “Phrases like ‘The cream always rises to the top,’ ‘Remember who you are,’ ‘You come from a long line of proud people who overcame tremendous odds,’ and ‘You are equipped with everything you need,’” are some that allow her to find footing, she said.

Lean on loved ones

Whether it’s your partner, immediate family, best friend or a wider community, nearly every therapist recommended talking to and spending time with loved ones.

“Spending time with family is important,” said Talley, who noted that he becomes even more conscious of the need for time with his wife and children when times are particularly tough.

Find something you can do

“Personally, when I feel powerless or hopeless – usually about the state of the world as opposed to the state of my life – I focus on what I can do,” Cole said.

This can include sharing resources for people, donating to organizstions that make a difference in the world, advocating for causes you care about, posting your thoughts on social media, and engaging in thoughtful conversations with others.

Another thing you can do? Take care of your basic needs. “I try to eat a little better, sleep a little better, move a little bit more, and talk with that small circle of people that help me see more clearly and accurately,” said Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist based in Texas.

You do have control over something, no matter what: yourself and your actions.