7 Things to Do If You Feel Helpless

What to do when you feel helpless.

Verywell / Laura Porter

Feeling helpless is something that many people experience from time to time. It's a feeling that can strike following a period of stress or as a response to trauma. In other cases, it can be a symptom of a mental illness such as depression.

When you feel helpless, it can be difficult to stay motivated to change your situation. Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to feel better able to tackle life's challenges.

Identify the Source

If you feel like there is nothing you can do to change the situation, it can help to assess and evaluate the source of your feelings. Some questions you might ask:

  • Have you been coping with a great deal of stress lately?
  • Have you recently experienced trauma or setback?
  • Is something happening in the world that is outside of your control?
  • Have you been struggling with other symptoms such as low mood, sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest that might be connected?

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Evaluating some of the factors that might be playing a part in your feelings of helplessness can help you decide what tactics might be the most helpful. For example, if daily stresses are making you feel helpless, finding ways to control chronic stress may set you back into a more resilient mindset.

If the problem is something outside of your control, managing how you relate and respond to the problem may be more helpful.

Understand Why You Might Resist Change

When you are experiencing a difficult or negative emotion like helplessness, it can sometimes be helpful to look at some of the reasons you might be resisting feeling empowered. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you are necessarily choosing helplessness—but it might be something that you resist changing because the alternative is frightening.

Not feeling helpless might mean that you are ready to make a big change in your life. But, on the other hand, overcoming those negative feelings might compel you to take on challenges that can also be difficult, challenging, or even overwhelming.

The important thing to remember is that changing your mindset can be hard, and it presents its own unique set of challenges. But it also opens up a new world of opportunity and rewards that are worth pursuing.

Focus on What You Can Control

When you spend too much time ruminating over the things you cannot change, you are more likely to magnify feelings of helplessness. Focusing on those unchangeable things only leaves you feeling more defeated. 

Giving attention to the things that you can control, however, can help you feel more capable. It provides a greater sense of agency and can give you the motivation and energy to work toward making a change. 

Remember Your Thoughts Might Not Be Accurate

Cognitive distortions are your brain’s way of misinterpreting events, coming to faulty conclusions, and believing things that are just downright wrong. So when you are dealing with a difficult emotion like helplessness, it is important to remember that your brain isn’t always telling you the truth.

So the next time you find yourself going down the “nothing will ever change” or “there’s nothing I can do that will make a difference” rabbit hole of negative thoughts, try to step back for a moment and take a more realistic view. 

It isn’t always easy to change these kinds of thought patterns. Learning how to recognize them is the first step toward changing them, however.

Challenge Your Helpless Feelings

Once you recognize those helpless thoughts and feelings, it is time to start actively challenging and replacing them with more accurate, empowering ones. 

This might involve looking for evidence that points to the opposite. For example, if you feel helpless about trying to achieve a specific goal, think about times that you have accomplished something you set your mind to. 

Look for evidence that disputes your helpless feelings. Think about situations that demonstrate your personal agency.

By actively seeking information that makes you feel more empowered and capable, you’ll be better able to break out of a powerless mindset.

Remember Your Strengths

If you feel helpless, it can be beneficial to recognize your own unique talents, strengths, and abilities. Emphasizing these capabilities is a great way to gain more empowerment and motivation to tackle challenges you might be facing in different areas of your life. 

Consider making a list of the things you are good at, and then think about how you might use those skills to tackle a problem. Rather than ruminate on your weaknesses, focus your time on appreciating and honing your strengths.

Practice Acceptance

While it might seem counterproductive, acknowledging the things outside of your control may actually improve your ability to accept them. Feeling like you have to control everything can actually make you feel more helpless and even hopeless when you find yourself overwhelmed by the reality of the situation.

Research suggests that when people mistakenly believe they can control the future, they actually end up feeling even more distressed.

Focusing on the present, on the things you can control in the here-and-now, can be more effective. Working on controlling things in the present may help people feel less distressed and more satisfied with life.

Mindfulness, a process that involves becoming more aware of the present without lingering on the past or worrying about the future, may reduce feelings of helplessness.

A Word From Verywell

Helplessness is a difficult emotion that can make it hard to tackle the obstacles that you face in your life. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to feel more capable and empowered. 

If your feelings of helplessness are causing distress, making it difficult to function, or are accompanied by other symptoms, talk to your doctor. Such symptoms may be a sign of a condition such as depression or another mood disorder.

Your doctor may recommend treatment options such as psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle modifications to help you start feeling better and improve your well-being.

If you or a loved one are struggling with feelings of helplessness or depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Frazier P, Caston J. Event controllability moderates the relation between perceived control and adjustment to stressorsJ Loss Trauma. 2015;20(6):526-540. doi:10.1080/15325024.2014.949161

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."