How to Deal With Powerlessness During COVID-19: Tips From Recovery, Mental Health Experts

After COVID-19 rendered nearly everyone powerless over a deadly virus, experts in recovery share what they have known for years.

Laurie Allen
Faith, support and AA have helped Bianca and Jeff Anastasia continue their life of sobriety and dealing with their addictions. The two, who met in rehab, are very active at Turnpoint Apostolic Church in Groveport.

Bianca and Jeff Anastasia say accepting life on life’s terms has helped them through many challenges, particularly in the last two years, when they experienced the fears and frustrations of trying to raise a family and work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Acceptance is honestly what’s kept us going,” Bianca says. “We try to instill it in our kids. It’s a tool for recovery, but it’s also a tool for everyday life.”

The Biancas are both in recovery; thus, they were well aware of how it feels to be powerless. Not everyone has their experience, though, and the COVID-19 pandemic has left many people with a feeling of powerlessness.

“COVID is one of the most real-world examples of unpredictable stresses, exposing our deepest vulnerabilities,” says Stephanie Gorka, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State University College of Medicine and Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. “At the core, lack of power creates an automatic reaction of anxiety. We feel as if we must get control, to be prepared.”

Stephanie Gorka

For those in recovery, the first step in a 12-step program is a public admission that we are powerless, which can relieve some of the pressure that comes with fighting an unbeatable foe, says Gorka.

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Certainly, people feel powerless over countless things: the traffic, the weather, the state of the nation and the state of their families. The concepts of accepting, living with and even embracing powerlessness extend well beyond the rooms of recovery and apply to anyone, particularly in times of unrest and uncertainty, experts say.

Acceptance is about learning to sit with and tolerate the unknown. Will I get COVID? Will I lose my job? Will my children be healthy? These are questions many have asked themselves thousands of times over the last few years. It’s important that people deal with this sense of powerlessness without turning to unhealthy escape behaviors like substance abuse, anger or isolation, says Gorka.

When people are able to accept things as they are, they relieve themselves of the pressure to control situations beyond their control, mental health experts say. “Power comes with great responsibility. When you take on too much, it can derail you,” Gorka says.

“It never occurred to me that surrendering is winning,” says Heidi Hess, clinical director at Hope 4 2Morrow counseling and treatment center in Columbus.

“Any time we try to get out of the natural flow, the force of life, is when we really struggle,” says Hess, who is also in recovery. “It’s that fight that causes all the angst, anxiety and depression, even physical illness.”

Ryan Pickut, director of residential services at Maryhaven, agrees. “When we try to swim against the current, that’s where the cycle kicks in,” he says. “We think, ‘There must be something wrong with me. I can’t solve this.’” The harder we try to fight, the more exhausted and desperate we become, he adds.

There are key elements required to live with this sense of powerlessness, according to those in the recovery industry. Those keys include connecting with others, practicing daily disciplines, and having an honest appraisal of oneself and one’s circumstances.

Hess says recovery has revealed to her that “I’m pretty much powerless over most things. … The question is how to be happy, serene, grateful and powerless at the same time.”

Ryan Pickut, director of residential services at Maryhaven

Doing Life With Others

“There is something about a sense of community and being with people who are hopeful with you, both challenging and supporting you, and being part of something bigger than myself—these are lessons that really can be extended to the overall population,” says Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“We live in a culture of rugged individualism,” adds Marjorie Kukor, trauma-informed care coordinator for the department. “When you share vulnerability, you create a sense of safety … and that leads to hope. Hope is essential.”

Pickut calls it “doing life with other people.” Most people coming into recovery have spent years trying to beat their addictions on their own, to no avail.

“This is not a ‘me’ solution,” she explains. “The idea of community is so important, whether it’s business networks, church life groups or people who have similar hobbies. COVID has helped us re-imagine what community looks like.” During the height of the pandemic, community took on more virtual tones with groups forming on Zoom, Facebook and other platforms.

Being in community plays another vital role—getting people out of their own heads, Gorka adds.

“Boredom and isolation get people into a lot of trouble. Your thoughts can go very unregulated, you get irrational and worked up, and there is nothing to break that cycle,” she says. “Labeling emotions can help, and input from another person not only provides a fresh perspective but makes you feel heard. It’s critical that you stop that runaway train.”

Do you or someone close to you need help?

To speak confidentially with a licensed counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, call the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services CareLine at 1-800-720-9616 or text 4HOPE to 741741

Change Your World

The feeling that life is happening to us can set off a cascade of negative emotions and behaviors. Mental health professionals help train people to interpret their situations differently.

A shift in perspective is the crux of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. This type of therapy provides methods to help people reinterpret a negative circumstance or thought into something more neutral.

“When people have negative thoughts, they just accept them,” Gorka says. “You don’t have to.”

She uses the image of watching leaves floating in a river. “You don’t have to get in the river and collect all the leaves,” she explains. “You can tolerate a situation without having to change it. Thoughts can go in the front door and out the back door without taking up residence in your head.”

Hess says she works with clients to discern fact from fiction because people’s thoughts and emotions sometimes are based on stories they tell themselves and assumptions they make about a person or a situation. “They create their thoughts, and thereby their emotions.”

Criss says something as simple as using the word and in place of but can make a powerful change in thoughts and feelings. “You can say, ‘I’m reading a really funny book and the pandemic goes on,” she says.

“Hope is a choice,” says Criss. “I can count my blessings, the places I can go, the things I can do. I can always change my attitude.”

Pandemic Powerlessness

One Day at a Time

A sense of powerlessness can feel overwhelming, and paralyzing. Addiction and mental health professionals say there are additional methods to break cycles of obsessive or catastrophic thinking and even prevent them from starting.

Having a daily discipline, such as reciting a prayer, listening to music or going for a morning walk, are vital to people in recovery, and even those who aren’t, Pickut says.

Grounding, or staying in the here and now, also helps allay angst over the unknown. “It relies on your senses, what you see, hear, touch and smell. If you find yourself spiraling, light a candle, use a weighted blanket or do something to bring you back to the present,” he says.

Other daily practices include reaching out to five people, spending 15 minutes outside, doing gratitude lists and unplugging from electronic devices. “They seem like common sense, but they really are grounded in science,” Criss explains.

Pickut says for grounding and affirmative practices to be of real benefit, they must be done daily. “Or you’re going to be in trouble,” he says. “In moments of crisis, we revert to what we know. We want to revert to healthy behaviors instead of unhealthy ones. He compares it to the fire drills practiced regularly at Maryhaven. “In the case of an emergency, we know the way out.

“For me, acceptance is, what do you want to carry with you?” he explains. “How much space do you have for those negative feelings? When we wake up every morning, we have those choices. … I’ve found myself doing the same thing—traumatizing and retraumatizing. It’s a daily decision to live in today, one day at a time.”

“I can’t control everything in this world,” admits Jeff Anastasia, who has been in recovery since 2014. “The past is the past, and the future isn’t here. What matters is today. I try to live one day at a time, and I try to have gratitude—things could be a lot worse.”

He and Bianca, who has been sober since 2015, try not to project fears and negativity into the future.

“Tomorrow might be better,” she says. “I need to stop putting expectations out into this world.”

God,

grant me the serenity

to accept the things

I cannot change,

courage to change

the things I can,

and wisdom to know

the difference

The Serenity Prayer

The words in this prayer, a vital piece of recovery programs and 12-step meetings, ask that we be able to accept our powerlessness over situations beyond our control, and challenge us to change what we can, namely our actions and reactions. People in recovery from various addictions admit they are powerless over their addictions, over other people and over external circumstances.

This story is from the 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly's Health.