Feeling Helpless During COVID-19? Try This

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By Dr. Christopher Willard

This pandemic is and will continue to be a traumatic time. While some of us may be relatively comfortable and secure for now, others are facing illness and loss of friends, family, and finances, yet none of us is spared the incredible disruption of this time. 

Trauma can mean many things, and our reactions to it vary. Yet one aspect of how humans react to trauma recently surprised me in my researchmore of us experience posttraumatic growth than its darker cousin, post-traumatic stress, that we are more familiar with. And consider historyhumans have survived horrors for millennia, and emerged stronger than ever as individuals and communities. It’s not just psychology, but history, anthropology, spirituality, and more that can teach us how to not just survive but grow and thrive through hardship. 

So how do we create the conditions for post-traumatic growth, rather than stress? I’d like to share just a few with you. One of the biggest factors in PTSD is feelings of helplessness, familiar to many of us right now. And yet, we can actually do something about that, even if we think we can’t.

How can we feel less helpless? We can, as Mr. Rogers’s mother famously suggests, “Look for the helpers” in frightening times. Looking for the helpers, thanking them; the first responders, the grocery workers, the garbage collectorsall of these “people in your neighborhood” are helpers who we can deliberately thank as they make this situation better. What’s more, we can also, even if in our own small way, be the helpers. 

You may not have medical experience or an ability to work some of those helper jobs, but you can help those helpers and others. The best way to not feel helpless is to, well, help. What’s more, volunteering might help you discover newfound passions, rediscover old ones, or even help you transition into a new career. Moreover, plenty of research from positive psychology backs service as one of the best ways to boost your mood and overall happiness and life satisfaction. It might also help you feel less isolated through this. 

So consider what helping could meandonating money if you have it, or time if you have that. If you are good at arts and designing, make signs or posters for your neighborhood or online offering sound medical advice or thanks to the other helpers. You might even create an “entering a zone of silly walks” sign in reference to the old Monty Python sketch that I’ve seen popping up around the neighborhood. Love cooking? Share recipes online, or teach friends to cook a meal over Zoom or Facetime. If you can write, write up short blogs offering wisdom and tips. Write inspirational quotes around the neighborhood in chalk or painted rocks, or, as one of my neighbors did, write corny jokes on the sidewalk. Participate in the local teddy bear hunt by putting them up in your window. Help a vulnerable neighbor with yard work or taking out the trash, or offer to pick up groceries for friends, family, and strangers. 

Give blood. Or plasma. Sew masks if you know how, and go online with videos to teach others how to do the same. Can you cut hair? Show your friends how over a video conference. Do you work in mental health? Register with the Emotional PPE project and donate time to front line workers. Love kids? Volunteer with your library to read out loud to kids over videos, or teach them mindfulness or music. If you’re athletic, teach kids dance or yoga or even basketball skills online. Lawyers can start anticipating the challenges people will face in terms of work, real estate, and finances, offering simple proactive legal advice. Teach a language, start a book club, offer a writing class. 

Good with tech? Plenty of people need help moving their work online, or less tech-savvy friends and relatives may need help setting up connections to distant supports. If you’re in advertising or marketing, consider ways to get positive messages and information out there. Handy around the house? Talk a friend through how to repair that leaky faucet or broken cabinet hinge. The point is, you don’t have to be a front line worker to make a difference at the individual or community level.

For those of us with families, it may feel like we don’t have a spare moment to volunteer our time. But kids too, want to feel a part of something bigger and contribute. They can create artwork and send it to nursing homes, play concerts online for workers and patients in the hospital, or write thank you cards to first responders, all of which be meaningful ways to contribute and help. One local teen has offered to create chalk murals for kids’ birthdays, another offers singing telegrams and serenades. As summer stretches out, I’m seeing older teens deliver toilet paper and other goods to neighbors, while others are finding ways to tutor younger kids online or offer their own online math, soccer, or cooking camps and classes to young ones. 

Simply put, to feel less helpless in the face of this, help. So many of us feel like we can’t do anything stuck in our homes. Of course, we know that just staying home itself is helpful. And if you want to do more, consider how you can use your unique skills to help a neighbor or a friend, and you’ll find those feelings of helplessness begin to fade, as your own and your community’s resilience grows in the coming months.

Dr. Christopher Willard, (Psy. D.) is a clinical psychologist, author and consultant based in Massachusetts. He is the author of twelve books, including Alphabreaths (2019), Growing Up Mindful (2016) and The Breathing Book (2020), translated into more than a dozen languages.  He has been invited to more than two dozen countries to speak, and has presented at two TEDx events. He teaches at Harvard Medical School.

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