What do you do when you can’t do anything? In life, there is nothing worse than feeling tied hand and foot. Completely gagged. Paralyzed by circumstances. No way out. No loopholes. Unable 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 our brain takes over. Your two default options are flee or fight. Both involve doing something. Decide. Take a proactive attitude. Try it, at least.
However, there are circumstances in which we do not have those options. The only option is paralysis. And it is the most costly alternative in psychological terms, fertile 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 interrupted. 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 while the brain processes them at a higher than average speed. But at the same time, the muscles are “paralyzed” to prevent us from making a bad decision dictated by panic.
However, this first analysis/paralysis phase is followed by a reactive phase, in which the muscles come back into action and we decide which course 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 danger is still distant or uncertain, but if we feel the risk growing, our natural reaction is to find an escape route or, failing that, fighting. It is an instinctive reaction that is difficult to control. If we see a lion approaching us with a threatening attitude, our first reaction will be to run or look for something with which to defend ourselves. 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 show 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. And yet there are circumstances when we can only hope. Trust the others or the course of life.
In those cases, we can experience a huge sense of helplessness. Powerlessness consumes us when we feel like we lose control and can’t get what we want. Interestingly, impotence is a very intense emotion with a great 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 that we later regret.
What to do when you can’t do anything?
• Remember that everything passes, this too. When you feel distressed, your rational brain “shuts down” and you can only see through that terrible situation. Everything that exists around you is tinged with those negative emotions. The world is falling apart and you think you’ll never get over it. That adds even more suffering. Instead, remembering that everything happens will help you regain a little confidence and strength to face that crisis.
• You don’t need to solve everything, just spend a little more time with it. Problems do not usually come alone, but are accompanied by more problems. When they pile up they can become a huge mountain that crushes you under its weight. Obviously, if you feel distressed, it is normal that you want it to be over. However, this is not the best time to fix all problems. Just think about holding out a little longer.
• Change what you can. Is it completely true that you can’t do anything? On many occasions that feeling of helplessness arises from not being able to do everything we want, but there is probably something we can do, even if it is not even close to the ideal or what we would like. However, the mere act of doing something will at least partially restore your lost sense of control and give you the serenity you need to cope with whatever comes your way.
• Seek serenity through radical acceptance. Sometimes there are situations that we cannot change. In those cases, as hard as it may be, we are left with no choice but to practice radical acceptance. It means understanding the state of things in its proper measure to face them with greater serenity. Fighting lost battles beforehand will only cause you to lose strength and energy that you can put to better use.
• Restrain your first reaction. When anger, helplessness, and frustration take over, it’s important to pause for a moment before acting. Ask yourself if what you are about to do will really help or do any good. Take a minute, or sleep on it if you can. Try to assess the situation from the most detached position possible. It’s hard. I know. But it is worth trying to take that psychological distance. Fall back to reorganize.
Roelofs, K. (2017) Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci; 372(1718): 20160206.
Chu, X. et. Al. (2016) 24-hour-restraint stress induces long-term depressive-like phenotypes in mice. Sci Rep; 6:32935.
Steimer, T. (2002) The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues Clin Neurosci; 4(3): 231–249.