• Audrey Tang

Helplessness in one area, doesn't mean helplessness in all - don't let your emotions overwhelm you


I write this in the comfort of my “egg swing” (my Christmas present to myself) watching the snow fall into my garden, and hearing my dog, Brandy snore her way through the morning. In the background there is the mumble of my husband on his second meeting of the day, I have a cup of tea, and for this moment (doing what I love most – writing) – I feel truly grateful.


In a subsequent moment I will be reminded that my dad is still in hospital (where he’s been since December 15th arriving with Heart Failure due to Kidney failure and then catching covid while on the ward); a dear friend’s sister (only 30 years old) is in hospital with a covid fever that hasn’t yet broken, and within my own family and that of too many friends there has been sadness and grief - some collateral damage of a truly horrible 2020.


My moment of bliss, of peace, of appreciating the beauty of what I am lucky to have does not mean I feel the pain, the anger, the anxiety any less. In fact, speaking to another close friend who lost his mother to a sudden and aggressive cancer last year one of the biggest emotions is heartbreak watching someone you love suffer.

At the moment I cannot visit my dad – I know he is due to be moved today (at the time of writing) to a “step down” bed to finish his covid isolation before discharge, finally, on Sunday. I know, having spoken to him, and the medical team every day he’s lost a lot of weight, his fever went a couple of weeks ago, but a chesty cough and fatigue lingers, and regarding the original cause for his admission, he’s got a catheter for peritoneal dialysis, and is finally free of the other tubes that had been necessary during his stay. I know the medical team are amazing – always updating me, always on duty – but I hear the stress in their voices. I know that dad’s ward became a “covid” ward because of the outbreak through which he was infected, and that wasn’t unusual for the rest of the hospital. I know the doctors are exhausted and demoralised saying “We can’t offer that now because of covid.” But I can’t see any of this – so perhaps what I imagine is going on in my head is worse than the reality…perhaps I’ve not even scratched the surface.


Feeling helpless in one context doesn’t make you helpless in others

Ultimately, I – and those I speak to who have loved ones in hospital, or who can’t be with their families (some of whom have medical issues) because of Lockdown – feel helpless.


And we are feeling helpless in the world of our own imagination where we don’t even know what we are reacting to – just what we are being told. Even if we had medical training, we can’t do anything from where we are. As children or siblings, we may also not be the best people to keep our loved ones spirits up – their own friends may be better placed. With the way things are – resources scarce, protocol unpredictable, and not knowing exactly what is going on because we cannot be there – there seems little else to do besides worry.


This is the one thing I urge you – and those I speak to (including myself) to avoid.


Not only is worry self-perpetuating – ie. it can lead to catastrophising, the fear from which can render us paralysed (our response to threat includes flight, flight and freeze) – but it can drain others and ultimately does nothing constructive.

The key to resilience is maintaining enough mental and emotional fortitude so that when faced with crisis, or exhaustion, or “helplessness” it does not impede our ability to be effective. Perhaps I cannot physically be there with my dad, perhaps I cannot help him in situ practically, but I can prepare for his rehabilitation and recovery when he comes out; I can keep his friends updated on his progress; I can ask those who know more than me their thoughts on the options available for dad’s treatment - and even ask them to reassure him.


And I can keep myself healthy – physically too – so that when I am able to take action directly I’m fit, ready and able.


One of the easiest steps to building resilience (mental and emotional strength) is to focus on what you can influence – and do it well.

If any of this connects with you right now, try the following:

1. Engage with friends - as friends

While my friends are indeed a listening ear – I don’t want the few interactions we have (we all have lives) to be just about my problems. Firstly, they have their own ones, and secondly – 20 minutes spent laughing with them on a video call can mean 20 minutes of headspace, re-energising me before returning to “action stations”.

2. Know your limitations and collaborate with others

You do not have to be responsible for everything. When I was worried about the amount of weight my dad had lost, I spoke to the doctors at the hospital, but I also sought advice from his friends who are retired medical professionals. Knowing that you do not have all the answers, but being aware from whom you might be able to seek them, can provide you with reassurance (and again alleviate that anxiety…remember we do not want to get to a position of “freeze”).

3. If it is possible to plan ahead – see what you can do

It is only this last week where I feel that I know what is happening with my dad’s treatment – and yes, that little fear of “but things can change”…note I say ‘change’ I would not use ‘go wrong’…still exists, BUT I have researched diets for renal patients, I have looked up supplements, I know what physiotherapy equipment he has been using in hospital…and I know how quickly I can source everything. I've looked up signs of anything such as infection around a wound site, and I learned the discharge process so knew to expect calls from social services as dad's care transfers from the truly indispensable NHS to the just as vital community network.

4. Continue to be mindful of your mental, physical and emotional health

Every day I find time to meditate, to run, to do something for me – or recognise a moment of purity of peace or happiness (or both). I continue to laugh with my friends. I continue to do the things I enjoy – which includes my work. As I said right at the start, this doesn’t mean you feel fear less (so never let your thoughts of what others may think pile on imaginary guilt on top of what you are already managing!!) but that balance saves you from becoming too overwhelmed (a state in which you may achieve far less). You are a competent, intelligent, innovative person – you WILL find solutions, unless you allow your stressors to consume you.

5. Embrace connection with others

Whether this is through reaching out, or through offering comfort – knowing that we are facing the same storm (although our boats may be different) is often of great support. It allows us insight, compassion, empathy. I write on this topic today because I know it is something I have spoken about with friends – and perhaps it is something that may help more widely. WE are reminded we are not alone – which in turn reminds us that there is collective hope, or different perspectives or ideas, or people who we might be able to help – or who could help us. All this feeds our intelligence by giving us different options to consider which might bring better solutions; and most importantly feeds our inner strength in a dark time.


Whatever you are going through – remember, it is your emotional strength that will give you the push to keep going…I hope any one of the suggestions in this article helps you build it a little more today.


Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt




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