field of traumatic stress continues to expand
vastly as new and expanding theories are formulated,
tested, proven and applied. Sensitive discernment
enables us to unfold ever more areas where trauma
and its lingering related stressors lie camouflaged
in wait of the moment when a stimulus intended
to initiate any appropriate, active response instead
As I had read
material prepared in the early seventies, I found
that helplessness was illustrated by describing
hysterical women who used it to, ultimately, manipulate
others for their own ulterior motives. Twenty
years later, a series of psychology books, articles
and my own notes address learning theories, reinforcements,
rewards, and punishments, as well as the theory
of "learned helplessness" in relation
to helplessness. There were faint hints that maybe
there was more to helplessness than those conceptualizations
that met the eye of the researcher or writer,
with little or no elaboration.
and in time more vociferously, helplessness has
begun to be seen in relation to traumatic stress.
Current ideas about helplessness imply and often
specifically include criteria such as having been
"overwhelmed." For instance, an individual
who has experienced an act of violence or horror
that renders him/her numb or "paralyzed"
(i.e., helpless, overwhelmed). It should be noted
that this has nothing to do with weakness.
Somewhere in the
person's past, perhaps, there was an act that
left the individual totally incapacitated. The
unconscious remembers the futility, the impossibility,
of counteracting that earlier force which totally
engulfed it. Like a permanently implanted CD-ROM,
it replays the stimulus response cycle it had
integrated causing the person to "freeze."
Though the proscribed
brevity of this article prevents lengthy reporting
of reviewed literature and data, it is interesting
to simply look at the words that our Anglo-Saxon
languages use: The English "overwhelmed"
not only means to overpower with superior force,
to destroy and crush, but it also means to cover
or bury beneath a mass of something: its root
word in old and Middle English, whelm,
means to engulf, submerge. The precise and graphic
German use of the term "uberwaltigen"
from GEWALT (force, power, tyranny, etc.) is related
to "vergewaltigen" (force, oppress,
render helpless) and "Vergewaltigung"
(rape). Similarly, "helpless(ness)"
lends itself to linguistic interpretations and
etymological analysis. Its definitions include:
unable to help oneself, deprived of strength and
power, powerless, incapacitated, bewildered and
confused. Isn't that the way we feel when overwhelmed?
When one experiences
a traumatic event, especially a human-produced,
non-natural traumatic incident, it is not at all
surprising that the shock of the initial
trauma ingrains itself so indelibly. Consequently,
in later situations, including actions for self-preservation
and survival, the same feelings emerge and leave
the person once again feeling bewildered, confused,
and paralyzed with fear and anger. The individual
may also feel overpowered, engulfed and left submerged
- drowned in helpless, overwhelming emotion.
The effects of
reacting as if one is, again, helpless and overwhelmed
in situations that generally would not engender
such strong or extreme responses, become evident
in a multitude of life situations encountered
by the traumatized person. For example, consider:
The abused spouse. No matter how many support
groups, theoretical ideas, comprehensive information
and negative experiences present in their current
relationship, the abused and neglected spouse
(more often than not) stays in the relationship.
If one scratches the surface deep enough, we often
find a person traumatized in early life who must
first deal with THAT trauma before successfully
moving on within/from the current situation. Trauma
clouds self esteem.
obese person. No matter how many quick-fix
diets are tried, "pay-as-you-go" diet
programs are joined, exercise clubs and equipment
purchased and health scares touted, much of the
theoretical knowledge of the aforementioned measures
remains blocked from practical applications. What
is missing is that little voice inside that says,
"I want to, I want to." This essential
voice says YES to life. Once helplessly
overwhelmed, that voice that may have been drowned
in terror, now drowns itself in food because,
behind the voice, is a person who sees herself
or himself as "unworthy." One can be
made whole again. Self-esteem needs healing.
woman, divorced; widowed; single, even when married.
Worried into panic that she lacks the means to
survive for as long as she is expected to live
and immobilized by her fear, she believes financial
management is beyond her ability or comprehension
regardless of her role as housewife or career
woman. It is not that she is unable to learn how
to understand financial matters, investments and
strategies. Rather, she plays "hot-potato"
with financial responsibility for self because
she was taught that "she can't", "isn't
smart or good enough." Healthy self-esteem
means accepting responsibility for self.
Oh, the insidiousness
of traumatic stress. The negativity of posttraumatic
stress insinuates itself into every venue of life
destroying the little everyday joys that constitute
the large part of living. While therapeutic groups
and mental health professionals speak a lot about
empowerment, taking charge, exercising control,
and moving on and beyond, they are frequently
oblivious to one key ingredient - denial. Helplessness
is denied, misunderstood, and hidden because,
culturally, it is seen as weakness, inability,
and a cop-out.
Unless we acknowledge
helplessness, validate its existence, address
its insidiousness and pervasiveness, call it by
its name, point to it in various behaviors, actions,
thoughts and patterns - we are not engendering
self-determination, power or self-esteem. We are
merely covering traumatic residue with present-day
varnish that will last until the next crisis comes,
the next stressor is encountered, or another trauma
It is. It has a why, and in that why
lies the how of overcoming it. First
and foremost, comes identification, then recognition,
awareness, acceptance, resolution and action.
Transcending it is a key for living.
one has a right to respond in a helpless manner
based on prior trauma is taking ownership of self
back. It is OK to be helpless. Not bad, not weak,
it's simply all right to be.
Calling it by its name mitigates its debilitating
stigma. It is neither fault nor weakness. It is
not coming from within, it was enforced by the
outside and had been erroneously accepted and
integrated by the self. Recognition. Labeling.
We must legitimize this feeling by giving it a
name. By this very act, empowerment is achieved.
Lasting empowerment emanating from the very core
of within, of self.
must recognize that he/she is infinitely capable,
and in a loving and gentle caring manner, forgive
oneself for the mistake of buying into the helplessness
ploy. Simultaneously, one must not feel ashamed
of admitting this error - this is the road to
genuine healing, empowerment, and self-esteem.
This includes self-care and self-love. These latter
two concepts demonstrate a mature responsibility
In summary, it behooves experts in the field of
trauma to further study helplessness as it relates
to the underlying cause for traumatic stress-related
symptoms which precipitate crises. Recognizing
the "what" - overwhelming and helplessness
- is a big step in developing the "how"
- how to set goals and plan for their attainment.
by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic