How Embracing Helplessness Can Help Us Cope With Anxiety

A strategy for combating worry when you’re facing tough times.

Alisa Wolf
Jan 12, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

ife is full of surprises. Accidents happen. Most of the time, we’re able to distract ourselves from this truth. Until we can’t.

Several weeks ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, I left home expecting to get some work done and leave the office in time to bake dessert for the holiday meal. On my walk from the commuter train, I had coffee in mind and Starbucks in my sights when, a hundred yards in front of me, a woman stepped into a crosswalk, just as a fruit and produce truck was turning the corner.

“He’s going to run her over,” I thought, a split second before the truck actually ran over her.

My predominant feeling was helplessness. Then anxiety flooded in. I hadn’t been able to stop the accident, and I felt bad about it. I wanted to help. But after calling 911, there was nothing for me to do but give the two people caring for the wounded woman some space and wait for the ambulance.

Six weeks later, the unexpected hit closer to home.

We Are Not in Control

On January 2, the love of my life came home from a medical appointment. She told me the lump on her thigh that her primary care physician had said was probably a benign cyst had been deemed “highly suspicious.” A surgeon wanted to run tests, to determine if it was a sarcoma and whether it had metastasized to her lungs or lymph nodes.

In other words, cancer.

Hello, helplessness. And I mean “helplessness” in the sense of “powerless, incapacitated” ( definition two). As in They were helpless with laughter. As in, at the mercy of a force beyond our control.

“One step at a time,” I said to my spouse. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Wise words, those.

But in the middle of the night, anxiety had its way with me. My mind raced. It rushed ahead to worst-case scenarios. I felt angry. Why us? And worried. What will happen to me if…? I wasn’t proud of myself for thinking like a three-year-old in the middle of a tantrum. I don’t like this. I don’t want it.

As I’d been taught in meditation practice, I tried to calm myself by focusing on my breath. I fell into the anxiety. My teachers had instructed me to watch the emotion and notice its passing. Except the emotion wasn’t passing. As the night wore on, anxiety turned into anguish.

What was I doing wrong?

How Thoughts Keep Anxiety Alive

One of the first things you notice in a meditation practice is that you don’t have control over your thoughts. In the classic example, if someone says “Don’t think of an elephant,” you immediately think of an elephant. In the same way, whether you’re sitting on a meditation cushion or lying awake in the middle of the night, thoughts can turn your mind into a funhouse that leaves you frantic for an exit you just can’t find.

Another truth from Buddhist philosophy — and from neuroscience — is that thoughts aren’t real. They emerge from neural processes. Yes, researchers can see brain activity, but they can’t capture actual thoughts. We don’t walk around with thought bubbles over our heads.

Thoughts come and go. They don’t mean any more than passing clouds.

‘I’ve got to catch the train. It’s time to make dinner. I’m cold, better put on a sweater.’

It’s easy to see such thoughts as ephemeral. They don’t make you a bad person or a good person. They just happen and go away.

But the thoughts that keep me awake seem to fall into a different category. My spouse is going to die. I am going to be alone. What if there’s something wrong with me that I don’t know about? What a horrible thought. I must be a terrible person.

What makes these thoughts any more real than “I’d better put on a sweater”? Nothing. Because just like any other thought, they’re nothing but electrical impulses. Or, in the words of teacher Judy Cohen, of

“All thoughts are the same. No matter what they’re about, they’re all made of the same stuff. “

Yet we believe that these thoughts say something about who we are. We’re selfish. Bad partners. Unloving and unlovable.

You Are Not Your Thoughts

Why do we indulge such painful thoughts? In a recent conversation with Judy about coping with anxiety, she said that our thoughts serve to distract us from our lack of control.

“The main purpose of anxiety is that it keeps you from noticing your helplessness,” she said.

There’s that helplessness again. We just hate it. But hating it doesn’t help. So what does?

Judy said:

“If peace is what you want, turn away from what’s making you anxious and focus, instead, on helplessness.”

I gave it a try. I let go of my thoughts. I relaxed my shoulders and took a few breaths. I felt relief. And then, a thought happened. I was back in anxiety.

“I can do it, but only part-way,” I said.

“You’re helpless over that too,” Judy said.

If we’re helpless over thoughts, then what makes us think we have control over what happens next?

Life Has Its Own Plans for Us

Luckily, life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice embracing helplessness. You don’t have to wait for a serious accident or diagnosis. You can practice when the car doesn’t start. When the train is running late. When your favourite diner is out of your favourite comfort food. When your partner does that thing that drives you crazy.

“It’s okay to be helpless. Just let the wheel take you. It’s going to take you anyway.”

— Judy Cohen

One of the core tenants of Buddhist philosophy is that old age, sickness and death are unavoidable. You can work out, eat right, avoid smoking and drinking to excess. You can Botox your wrinkles, dye your grey hair, enhance this and reduce that. There’s nothing wrong with being healthy and looking good. But ultimately, life’s natural processes best us.

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Judy asked me to consider whether it might, in fact, be a reason for hope. When we’re faced with calamity, our delusions of control are shattered. And, free from delusion, we can live more fully, for whatever time we have left.

I’d managed to feel only a moment of relief during my talk with Judy, but it had a lasting effect. Peace was possible if I leaned into helplessness. I moved through the rest of the day with more presence and less worry. Life was taking care of itself.

And whatever happened, I was going to be okay.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Alisa Wolf

Written by

Creative nonfiction writer with publication credits in several literary magazines, including Agni Online, Calyx, and Cimarron Review.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Alisa Wolf

Written by

Creative nonfiction writer with publication credits in several literary magazines, including Agni Online, Calyx, and Cimarron Review.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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