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When Uncertainty is Our New Normal: Managing Feelings of Helplessness Over the Course of Continuing Challenges

May 10, 2022 – 4 min read

By Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., Former AFSP Vice President of Mission Engagement

Doreen Marshall, Ph.D. Vice President of Mission Engagement

Recent times have required more from all of us in order to support our mental health. As a psychologist, I have learned about many tools that I keep in my mental health toolbox – and over the past few years, I have needed to use them daily! From the cumulative impact of the Ukraine war, a multi-year global pandemic, political or cultural events, rising inflation, to personal losses and difficulties, I don’t think I am alone in feeling like recent challenges seem to be occurring more rapidly and without much time to recover from them. Feelings of helplessness can have a negative impact on our mental health. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to care for our own mental wellbeing.

Part of tolerating uncertainty is about finding a way to exist while “not knowing.” This requires deliberate effort to separate out what we can impact in our day-to-day experience from the things we have limited or no control over. It usually doesn’t help us to imagine the worst outcomes or to ignore difficult information, though it is tempting to do that because of the certainty it brings. What we can do, however, is to stay flexible and focus our energy and mindset on the things we can do to help ourselves and others, especially when we feel most helpless.

Having a hard time these days?  Here are some things that can help:

  1. Give voice to your experiences. There is power in knowing we are not alone. Talk to others who can be supportive and have a real conversation about what you are experiencing, especially when your mind is scaring you with thoughts of uncertainty or focusing on potential future difficulties.
  2. Focus on small immediate actions to help your day-to-day experience be more manageable. For me, these are the things I can control: getting to bed on time, drinking enough water, taking medication as prescribed, getting some daily sunlight or taking a walk. You may have others, but the point is that while we can’t usually control what happens to us, we have some control in how we respond. And focusing on immediate actions to improve our day-to-day wellbeing can also help us be more resilient in the face of difficulties.
  3. Keep your thoughts focused on the present. Breathe more slowly. When you find yourself imagining the worst, try to keep your thoughts in the present moment as much as possible and guide your attention back to the present. Remind yourself that you don’t know what will happen in the future and that you are coping now (and will continue to cope), one moment at a time. I remind myself that things often change and that I can adjust and bring in new strategies if they do.
  4. Allow for the possibility that things may become clearer with time. I often remind myself that if you put sand and water in a glass and stir it, you can no longer see through the water. We don’t make our best judgments about life when things are unclear and we feel unsettled. I remind myself that if I just wait, things often get clearer with time. None of us need to decide what will happen for the rest of our lives in a single moment – we only need to decide how we will respond to what is happening today.
  5. If you can, find a small way to make things a little better for someone else too. This can be as small as putting out your neighbor’s garbage can in the morning or as big as advocating on a larger scale for better changes in the world. Buy someone a coffee, call that person that you never call back, or attend an event where you are surrounded by others also trying to make positive changes or create social good. This can help us with feelings of helplessness and reassure us that we, too, can have a positive impact. Want to learn more about AFSP advocacy efforts and events and get involved? Start here.
  6. Remember, we all sometimes need additional strategies to support our mental health. Even those of us who work in mental health need to regularly reassess (and often adjust) our strategies to support our mental health as circumstances change. Maybe you’ve never sought out a therapist or support group, called a help line, or reached out to someone who can support you when times are tough. Or maybe you’ve used these resources but needed them sooner than you eventually engaged them. Now is the time to proactively exercise that help-seeking muscle – and there are people and groups out there who will meet you in that place of uncertainty with support and guidance.

Need more support for your mental health during these challenging times? You can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273- TALK or text the Crisis Text Line by texting the word TALK to 741741 to reach a trained professional helper.  You can also find more mental health and suicide prevention resources at