One day after the next, we continue to push through life in a time that makes many feel powerless – especially if you’re in the U.S., a nation so divided that even public health is political. We’re witnessing unconscionable negligence from the powers that be in both reopening society and ignoring systemic problems in areas such as policing and criminal justice. It’s easy to feel that our voices are unheard, ignored, or trapped in echo chambers. And even small victories seem few and far between.
On top of this, the strain of long-term isolation and anxiety about the future affects each of us personally. People are stressed, lonely, and if they live with others, may be dealing with household and relationship conflict. Parents are worried about balancing their children’s needs with work responsibilities, many of them preparing for a dangerous school environment and inconsistent educational methods. We’re struggling with the challenges of remote work or unsafe in-person work environments, with unemployment, and with financial stress. Some of us are worried about or grieving those who’ve fallen ill or suffered the ultimate fate at the hands of COVID-19.
Other factors could be causing stress and anxiety as well. Maybe you’re stuck in an urban environment with no way to experience nature or breathe fresh air. Maybe you miss life as you once knew it, and the ability to visit friends without masks, or deep anxiety about spreading a deadly virus. Maybe you’re recognizing personal habits that are bigger or uglier than they once seemed.
What can you do when you feel powerless?
First, know that you aren’t suffering alone. You’ve probably expressed the cliché yourself: “we’re all in this together.”
That phrase has a dual meaning when it comes to social progress. There are things we absolutely can’t fix on our own – global political battles, societal rifts, the economy, and the minds of stubborn adversaries. But we can take steps and celebrate small wins, gaining a measure of control. That could include becoming better informed, donating, having hard conversations with friends and relatives, or making calls to members of Congress. Taking initiative, even screwing up and learning from it, allows us to develop an internal locus of control. That can instill a sense of empowerment as we make a measure of difference.
Maybe what’s creating a feeling of powerlessness is household dynamics, interpersonal conflicts, or behaviors that have gotten out of control – such as drinking, overeating, scrolling through social media, or gaming. Many of our habits have come under the spotlight during isolation. Everyone needs a little me-time and escapism. But if you only have one or two coping mechanisms that function as escape, they probably aren’t sustainable and won’t make things easier. If you know there’s something you could be doing differently, it can only help to try.
If you don’t know where to start or just aren’t ready, try simply contemplating a change. Journal about how it would look. Read about or talk to other people who’ve successfully done it. You can learn about others’ experiences by searching podcasts, TED talks, or YouTube. If you have the resources, I recommend trying virtual counseling. Learning and starting with small steps can help you feel energized, supported, and encouraged to make a plan.
Alcohol consumption during a global pandemic
I’m not here to say that all drinking is bad. The human relationship with alcohol is far more complicated than that. I’m a big proponent of recognizing good and bad qualities in all things, and the continuum between the two. Alcohol is no exception, though I regard it as a primarily negative influence in my own life.
Despite harmful consequences for many, alcohol has been a catalyst of communion throughout history. In the present moment, virtual social drinking is helping people to stay connected and entertained, find a sense of discovery even in our confinement, and deal with disappointment about the world’s most stubborn problems. We might also be using alcohol to cope with stress and loss – not just lives lost, but as Dr. Argie Allen Wilson puts it, “the loss of the lives that we once knew. Loss of the engagement that we came to enjoy so much.”
Unfortunately, however, the pandemic is causing some people to drink more than ever, justifying doing so with the need for relaxation and distraction during prolonged isolation. They could be under pressure from friends or those they live with to drink, or perhaps feel the need to isolate from those they live with through alcohol. Some are drinking more because they’re alone, succumbing to a daily routine and separated from those who typically witness or judge their behavior. There’s also a greater risk now for sober people to lapse back into alcohol use.
Whatever the causes may be, many people are recognizing that they don’t have as much control over alcohol as they once thought. They may see effects and behaviors they didn’t notice before, and even have deep regrets. Many are convinced each morning that they’ll change but feel powerless once evening rolls around.
It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere. With the heat and our longing for the excitement that summer typically brings, more people are drinking in large groups despite the pandemic. In addition to lowering inhibitions, alcohol causes us to become myopic, or short-sighted – we give in to the pressures and enjoyment of the moment, less aware of events that seem distant. So in addition to the usual risks of alcohol, we become less focused on the impacts of congregating in large groups and slip up on things like mask usage and 6-foot spacing.
Moderating or eliminating alcohol consumption
Plenty of people are able to mindfully moderate their alcohol consumption. And even those who can’t moderate may try doing so before making a sweeping decision to give up alcohol altogether. If you feel out of control and want to limit your drinking, now might be a good time to put it under the microscope and take some notes.
Pay attention to what triggers your consumption, and how alcohol affects your mood and reactions. If you could use some outside perspective, ask a trusted friend or relative what they see. When a trigger arises, mix in other responses so that alcohol isn’t the only thing helping you to adjust or escape. Try a different treat or activity like a favorite food or a form of exercise you enjoy, boosting your dopamine level in more sustainable ways and giving yourself a broader self-management toolkit.
You can also place alcohol out of sight so it’s not so top-of-mind when you need release. When you are drinking, pace yourself. Alternate between alcohol and water. Consume plenty of food. Space out your drinks and count them – determine and heed your limit. Furthermore, educate yourself about the signs of Alcohol Use Disorder so you’re cognizant of any patterns that might arise in your drinking or that of loved ones.
Some of us are good at putting boundaries in place. I was not. Despite wanting to control my alcohol intake, I’d continue to let myself finish the wine bottle, waking up feeling sick, empty, and helpless, and going through the daily motions until I could settle into the comfort of the next night’s bottle of wine. I may not have had a single “rock bottom” moment but did several things over the years that wounded my sense of pride and self-worth.
It took me several years to realize I was incapable of moderation and couldn’t drink “normally.” I first tried using a calendar to reward myself with stickers on nights when I didn’t drink or only had a couple glasses of wine. Some weeks were more successful than others, but by and large, there weren’t that many stickers.
Gaining power from theories of behavior change
Becoming familiar with some of the many theories on behavior change helped me to better understand and respond to my behavioral motivations. It might help you, too. This article provides a great overview of some of these theories; below, I’ll share what is really a cursory overview of how I applied them to becoming sober. Though the article focuses on challenges with food consumption and exercise, there’s a good deal of overlap between overeating and excessive drinking. And there are several more theories that I don’t have space to address here.
For me, self-determination theory, which revolves around “intrinsic motivation,” was key to successfully giving up alcohol. “Intrinsic motivation does not rely on external pressure, like rewards/approval or punishment/disapproval from peers or health professionals. It exists within the individual… [who] must believe the behaviour is enjoyable or compatible with their ‘sense of self’, values and life goals.” By examining my thoughts and feelings, and adopting new hobbies, my sobriety became something desirable – not just something I had to do.
In addition, the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy were built into my experiences in counseling and a recovery group. They helped me to challenge dysfunctional thoughts, assumptions, and coping mechanisms while I developed accountability through peer support.
Especially now, almost out of necessity, technological resources are worthy of exploration – whether that’s an app, an SMS (short message service) that sends motivational messages, or telemental health, such as video counseling. These interventions can be affordable, convenient, and less stigmatizing because they’re private – all factors that were integral in my decision to use video counseling in my first few months of sobriety.
Reading about theories of behavior change and related tools helped me to gain greater control over the factors that impact my behavior – from the personal (beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, skills, genetics) to the social (interaction with friends, family, community) and environmental (home, workplace, economy, and more). It gave me the knowledge I needed to turn the right valves and find the confidence to make changes in my life. I hope it helps other people, too.
Whatever might be causing you to feel powerless, I hope you’ll find the resources and motivation to begin making a change. Even small adjustments can be empowering. Yes, many things fall outside of our control. But we have more influence than we think, both in our own lives and in the world around us.
Actions – even small actions – can have compounding effects, and we can use that to our advantage. We aren’t living in a vacuum, even if physical distancing makes it feel that way at times. While you’re working towards personal or social change, don’t forget that sharing supportive words can have a massive impact on others’ sense of empowerment, prompting them to push for change in their own lives and circles.
So, take your me-time, indulge in self-care, and dive into the escapism you need. Read that fantasy novel. Take that midday nap. If you’re someone who can drink alcohol moderately, have that glass of wine. But think of those things as hitting “refresh” rather than being the only way out. And manage each one on your terms.
It’s fine and only natural to feel overwhelmed and powerless right now. But by adopting a defeatist attitude and failing to recognize what is within our power, our lives and the world around us move from the threat of limited setbacks to certain ruin. Let’s not let that happen. An ounce of hope is all we have, and with the right tools and a measure of effort we can make that hope a reality.