Have you lost hope regarding the future? Is your outlook full of dread and gloom? Are you doom scrolling and caught in a negative feedback loop about the world? If so you are not alone. In this day and age it is super common to tip in to a pessimistic downward spiral in our thinking and feeling. With the state of world affairs global warming, and the cost of living crisis etc. many people are feeling a loss of hope. Fortunately, it is possible to learn how to overcome states of hopelessness. By understanding what hopelessness is and learning effective strategies and mindsets it is possible to restore a sense of hope and purpose.

What is Hopelessness?

Forms of hopelessness are frequently observed in human experience. In particular, we can often loose a sense of optimism regarding the future or what there is to look forward to. In effect, we can all fluctuate in terms of our sense of hope and perspective. Furthermore, hopelessness is commonly observed in mental health conditions such as depression, unrelenting anxiety, and PTSD. It is when we feel constantly submersed in these negative thought patterns that it can be difficult to see another picture. Despite its blanket effect there are ways to overcome hopelessness.

In particular, hopelessness is a very common feature of depression. It represents a sense of despair or lack of possibility that the future can and will get better. When we are stuck in a sense of hopelessness there can be a real block to seeing anything worthwhile, positive, or rewarding in the future. In essence we are cut off from positive goals and pathways. With this, life becomes discoloured and the psychological landscape becomes bleak. Furthermore, we tend to see or perceive more negative outcomes and losses. Or we tend to have difficulty imagining, creating, or envisioning much of a future at all.

Hopelessness as blocked Emotional Goals and Needs

Hope is often linked to primary emotional and relational needs. When access to these needs is thwarted then hope is blocked. These needs can pertain to mastery, attachment, and sense of safety. Really any progress towards a goal that is repeatedly interrupted can create a state of hopelessness.

When these needs aren’t met the neuropsychological connection to hope doesn’t form. Instead, we develop ideas, associations that play in to the hands of hopelessness. When experiences violate certain needs then we can end up feeling defeated and depleted. A sense of hopelessness prevails. Even when the environment has shifted we still encounter internalized psychological brick walls, inner narratives, and defences that stop us from accessing hope.

Hopelessness and Sense of Mastery, Control, and Purpose.

Mastery is at the heart of our capacity to act and work towards goals. When we sense we have (close to or enough) skill to achieve something then we feel a sense of competence and mastery. When we learn something new or just out of reach we often feel moments of hopelessness. Although we might stumble and fall we regain composure, stamina, and direction to work towards that goal again. Events that contribute to a loss of meaning, purpose, sense of power and agency, or capacity can all influence our sense of hope.

Hopelessness and Loss of Safety and Predictability

When we live in a predictable environment free from ongoing threat then we build a sense of safety. When these needs are met we develop beliefs and build up a positive experience bank. From here we cultivate ideas that the world is safe. If we grow up or experience violence and abuse that is inescapable then we might readily feel a sense of hopelessness. Event such as captivity, violence, subjugation, being devalued can all impact hope with regards to feeling safe and secure in the world

Hopelessness and loss of Positive Connection

With regards to attachment, when we feel close to others and others meet our relational needs we develop a sense of hope with regard to connection. We cultivate beliefs that others are available and can be readily relied upon. Alienation, oppression, isolation, subjugation, and lost sense of belonging can all contribute to a sense of hopelessness regarding connection.

Effects of Hopelessness

As a consequence of hopelessness we may then tend to become more withdrawn. We tend to retract from the world, positive or enjoyable activities, social activities, nurturing relationships, and our key goals in life. Hopelessness can impact our mental, physical, and social well-being.

Evolutionary theories state some symptoms of depression have an adaptive purposes necessary for survival. If there have been too many stressors, traumas, or psychological knocks we tend to retreat from the world to recover. Thus it is better to conserve energy when we have had our fair share of challenges.

When hope or the possibility of accessing reward is diminished we tend to switch off motivation and effective action. Adaptive action sequences becomes deactivated. We also tend to filter information and numb off the potential for possibility. Therefore, when we are constantly bombarded by mini or micro or macro stressors it makes sense that we will likely tip in to hopelessness at some point.

Causes of Hopelessness

There are many potential causes for why our sense of hopelessness might increase. There can be developmental, cognitive, emotional, physical, and of course societal factors that play in to our sense of hope for the the future. We all got a good taste of hopelessness during the lockdowns of COVID. When there is difficulty seeing pathways out of or it is too distant in the future we loose hope and can become demoralised.

The avenue for reward is essentially diminished, narrowed, and depleted. Stemming from this developmental factors that are restricting, punishing, abusive, or lack affection or nurturing can readily shape our brain towards pathways of hopelessness. Unless we have a sense that we can achieve, be met with affection, and be nurtured it is quite common to loose hope. Behavioural experiments have readily demonstrated that animals succumb to punishment when they learn that there is no other solution. The animal inevitably experiences a sense of defeat and entrapment. We will come back to solutions in the following paragraphs.

Situations of social and psychological deprivation don’t allow for experiences that reinforce a sense of agency, control, and possibility. But this is also simplistic. Environments that are challenging can often teach optimism, resourcefulness, and adaptability. However, persistent experiences of racism, subjugation, inequality, oppression, violence, or captivity all contribute to forms of hopelessness. Changing socio-political systems, globalization, and the like can contribute to a sense of doom and defeat. Or major life events, relational or job losses, disasters, or having a long-term mental or physical illness can have a significant impact on hope.

Psychologically, we then tend to hold internal maps that do not reach a reward. The connectors in the brain don’t see a pathway out. Our psychological roadmap can constantly change depending on interactions with our environment and whether the environment is pushing or rewarding. Spring often symbolises a sense of hope and possibility. Conversely winter can symbolise a hibernation of our instincts to explore and play.

Hopelessness and our Thinking

The main avenue we have to change our sense of hope is through our thinking and action. As noted earlier certain experiences can shape our sense of hope. When we encounter a particular situation certain thought patterns, assumptions, and beliefs can come to the surface. These thought patterns can have a significant impact on our emotional state. We can often start to overcome and treat hopelessness by reframing these patterns in our thinking. For example the following examples highlight thoughts associated with states of hopelessness.

  • My situation will never get better.
  • I have no future.
  • No one can help me.
  • I feel like giving up.
  • I can’t find any purpose in life, life has no meaning.
  • It is too late to start now.
  • I have no hope.
  • I will never be happy again.

When these thoughts prevail we tip in to hopelessness. Sometimes it might be a quick image or sense that flashes through our mind. Therefore, we have to become attuned to how we feel and what these automatic thoughts are. Furthermore, when we are in a state of hopelessness we tend to filter information in a particular way.

  • Catastrophize – here we tend to see everything as a potential disaster or catastrophe.
  • Jumping to conclusions – here we automatically go to a specific negative outcome.
  • Labelling and Judging – we tend to judge situations negatively with quick automatic thoughts
  • All or nothing thinking – we perceived thinks as being all bad or negative.
  • Mind reading – projecting that we know the intentions, thoughts, or rational of others. In these instances usually the other person’s motives are interpreted in a negative form.
  • Excluding – ignoring potential sources of hope or possibility.
  • Tunnel Vision – here we only have antenna and sensors for the negative aspects of the world, ourselves, and our situation.

As you can see there are whole range of thought processes that shape our perspective

Hopelessness and Behaviour

We can engage in certain behavioural patterns and actions that perpetuate hopelessness. Avoiding tasks, lying on the couch or in bed, collapsing in defeat are all features of hopelessness. Behaviour, motivation, and action become depleted. Often there are patterns of distraction, procrastination that serve as a defence against hopelessness. The requisite internal steps and external behaviours for life are placed on hold. For example. lying on the couch or in bed all week places the nervous system in to a vegetative and numbing state. Thus action and behaviour is essentially placed in to hibernation mode.

Treatment of Hopelessness: Overcoming Hopelessness to Restore Purpose and Meaning.

Fortunately, there are many treatment options geared towards overcoming hopelessness. Effective therapies often aim to tap in to experiences of hope, safety, agency, and meaning. Psychodynamic therapy often aims to shift the blanket experience of hopelessness and explore the underlying causes. In particular, the active process of dialogue can often help us to shift out of a state of hopelessness. That is why social relationship and connection are often so vital to our well-being. Similarly, cognitive-behavioural therapy aims to identify and challenge the unhelpful thoughts and beliefs that we get submerged in. Overall, there are a range of ideas that can help us to overcome hopelessness.

  1. Take an Active Stance. When we fall in to hopelessness we tend to passively succumb to what is. Here we need to activate an active stance towards life, ourselves, and our goals. We have to become an active participant in restoring hope.
  2. Switch on Awareness. Because hopelessness is a deactivated state we need to switch on awareness. Here we start to notice all the thought patterns and layers of the mind that contribute to hopelessness. By actively monitoring our thoughts we can soon recognise the thoughts and beliefs that tip us in to despair.
  3. Reframing Thoughts – here we start to shift how we perceive our situation. We have to actively look for possibility in the world around us and examples of success and hope.
  4. Reorient – shift your focus to an area that you might have more control and influence over. If you are entrenched in doom scrolling take a break from your phone, computer and media. Look to your immediate environment and see what you might be able to change. Whether that be cleaning the house, getting organised, writing down a meal list, or planning your next day or two.
  5. Try to psychologically free yourself from any internal tormenter or part of yourself that blankets fun, play, and curiosity. Sometimes we internalize negative messages and pessimism from parents and others about the world. If we are encased in negative energy it can be useful to conceptualize your hopelessness as a part rather than the whole of who you are.
  6. Challenging negative thought patterns – in this instance we have to use a bit of detective work to see if the way we are thinking is impacting our mood. By challenging our thoughts and looking for alternative ideas we can start to tip towards increased hope. Remember change and possibility is often just around the corner.
  7. Behavioural Action – engaging in activities that can bring joy or a sense of mastery are critical to restoring branches of hope. Although we might not initially feel optimistic or joyed, the small acts start to add up and reactivate the brain. If we tend to lie the couch all weekend it is important to break the cycle with walks and activities that increase our agency. Pick up or start a new hobby that you have enjoyed in the past.
  8. Positive right action – aspects of Buddhism and other religions explore the concept of doing right, engaging in activities or a mentality of compassion and caring for others. By engaging in small prosocial activities we can bring a sense of accomplishment to our day. Often people volunteer or simply help out other people. It is in this sense of interconnected compassion that we can begin to undo the isolated states that often colour hopelessness.
  9. Practicing meditation, grounding, and self-compassion can help us to weather storms. By attuning to the present moment we can simply start to be and notice what is.
  10. Social engagement – if your support network has diminished or you have become isolated start to build more connections. Engage in therapy, meet-up groups, reach out to old friends, relatives, parents, or others that can be supportive.
  11. Becoming clear about our values are is another vital component to feeling hope. I often recommend brain-storming all of your interests, goals, hobbies, and relationships, where you want to place your energy and focus. What is your purpose in life? When we become really clear on what we are trying to achieve we have a target to aim for. This acts as a clear map to aim our energy. This is not about trying to attain an unrealistic goal but serves as a compass or guide for how we run our lives.
  12. Set goals and tasks that are realistically within your reach. Furthermore, break down bigger objectives in to smaller sets of goals. A university degree is broken into 3 to 4 years. Each year is broken in to approximately 2 semesters and 4 terms. Adjust goals and purpose to the here and now or to within your immediate locus of control.
  13. Finding a spiritual path can help us to tap in to a sense of hope and give life meaning and purpose.

Dr Damon Mitchell

Dr Damon Mitchell is a clinical psychologist and owner of Core Life Psychology. As a psychologist he is passionate about assisting people to transform their inner world. Damon connects and works actively with people to find pathways to hope, healing, and inner well-being. He recognises that life can be challenging and complex and takes a non-pathologizing approach to understand each persons experience.

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