Helplessly Overwhelmed
Monika R. Smith, Ph.D., B.C.E.T.S.


The 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 helplessly overwhelms.

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.

More recently, 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.

The severely 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.

The fifty-something 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 occurs.

Helplessness is. 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.

Learning that 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.

Enforced helplessness. 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.

The individual 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 for self.


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.

©1998 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.