When life gets tough, it can be hard to know what to do about it. Our job, school, our relationships with others, and even our self-relationship can become a source of stress and sometimes overwhelms us to the point that we feel like we can’t cope.
When life gets hard and overwhelming, you may end up feeling hopeless and lost about what to do. It’s normal to feel that way, but when the feeling stays for too long, it becomes a huge burden and can impact our ability to engage in life.
If you’re feeling hopeless today, or you regularly find yourself feeling low, then read on. We may not be able to fix your problems directly, but we’ll offer some tips, advice, and practical tools you can use, starting today, to help you overcome that hopeless feeling and elicit some positive change in your life.
Understanding hopelessness: What is it, and why does it happen?
What does it mean to feel hopeless? How does feeling hopeless differ from feeling sad or frustrated? In general, when a person feels hopeless, they believe that nothing will make them feel better or that nothing will solve their problems.
When we’re sad or frustrated, we can still hold out with the hope that some change will come and save us from our negative feelings, whether externally or from within. However, when we’re hopeless, we can’t see that change ever coming. We feel resigned to our pain or misery and can’t imagine how things could take a turn for the better.
What causes hopelessness?
Hopelessness is the deeply uncomfortable and unsettling feeling that you’re stuck in life and that there are no possible solutions. It’s part of a negative thought cycle that co-occurs with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and persistent stress.
There are several reasons why you may be feeling hopeless in your life right now. Sometimes the feeling arises when we lack a compassionate support system to help us get through difficult emotions.
A series of challenging life events that overwhelm our ability to cope, such as losing a loved one through death or the end of a close relationship can also make us feel hopeless. Other times, hopelessness is a learned worldview that originates in our early childhood and stems from an attachment rupture in our relationship with our primary caregiver.
Research published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry reports that ‘hopelessness is associated with depression and suicidality in clinical as well as in non-clinical populations.’ According to the study, common factors associated with hopelessness include:
- Financial struggles
- Poor health
- Reduced ability to work
- Low level of life satisfaction
- Depression and other mental health issues
- Alexithymia (the inability to identify and articulate one’s emotions)
Whatever the reason for your sense of hopelessness, the feeling is undeniably difficult to tolerate. Later in the article, we’ll walk through some actionable steps you can take to overcome your hopelessness and open the door for positive change to enter your life.
Understand that hopelessness is associated with a significantly increased risk of depression and suicide, so if you can reach out to a mental health professional for care and support, then don’t hesitate to do so.
In mental and physical health issues alike, prevention is the best cure. Know that therapy is not just for people with a diagnosed mental illness but for anyone who is struggling with their mental health in general.
A licensed therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional will not only help you address your hopelessness and help you figure out what’s causing it. But they’ll also help you develop essential coping skills and tools for self-management.
You can work on overcoming your hopelessness outside of therapy sessions with your willingness and newly developed coping skills.
Is hopelessness a mental health disorder?
Hopelessness is a mental health issue in that it poses a risk to one’s health, but it is not in itself a disorder. It’s a common symptom among a range of mental health conditions such as depression, severe anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse (substance use disorder, SUD).
Hopelessness and depression often co-occur.
Depression, though common, can be an incredibly difficult condition to live with. Part of the condition is the sense that one lacks meaning or a purpose in life, and finding one would be futile.
Along with hopelessness, a similar feeling, and one that is often reported among people with depression, is helplessness. A person who feels helpless doesn’t believe that they can make an effort to elicit the changes necessary to improve one’s state of mind.
How to overcome hopelessness
If you feel hopeless, here are some simple ways to address it. However, if these interventions still do not help and you’re having suicidal thoughts, please consult a mental health professional or call the national suicide prevention lifeline, 988.
1. Check your lifestyle
We all engage in unhealthy habits from time to time, but if those unhealthy habits include misuse of substances (including alcohol), excess gambling, pornography or sex addiction, and a long list of others, we may be setting ourselves up for hopelessness.
Drug misuse is a common causal factor for feelings of hopelessness.
Users achieve temporary pleasure or relief from consultation, but as the effects fade, the user is likely to feel more down and exhausted than before. In cases where a person uses substances to escape from difficult emotions, those emotions are likely to return stronger than before once the effects wear off.
Like drug misuse, other addictive behaviors can also impact our well-being.
Many people struggle with behavioral (process) addictions like sex, gambling, shopping, or internet use.
The mechanism of action behind these addictions is similar to drug addiction – the person achieves positive and desired feelings and states during use but will experience negative feelings and compulsions or cravings when the substance or behavior isn’t accessible.
If you believe that your feelings of hopelessness may have something to do with your lifestyle and behavior, then try making a change in those areas.
It may be that you feel hopeless because you feel like you can’t stop engaging in these behaviors, as is the nature of addiction. In that case, it’s wise and arguably urgent, to seek professional medical advice.
People can and do recover from addictions of all kinds, but it’s vital to reach out for support. Rather than resorting to destructive vices, practice self care by doing helpful activities.
2. Connect with others
We’re programmed to be social. Having strong bonds with other people has been found to boost our well-being, instill a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and even increase the longevity of life.
Further, strong connections act as a shield against isolation and loneliness, which are significant factors in the feeling of hopelessness.
Consider joining support groups if you’re not sure who or where to turn to for social connection and support.
Sometimes we find ourselves without friends or family members around, either due to distance or strained relationships, and it feels like we have nobody we can talk to. However, there are plenty of support groups available worldwide, in-person and online, for people who struggle with hopelessness and other issues, including loneliness, drug addiction, and other specific mental health conditions.
3. Shift your perspective
Hopelessness is not all about perspective – it’s a perfectly valid feeling and should not be dismissed. Still, perspective has an awful lot to do with how long a person stays hopeless.
The truth is, hopelessness, as the name suggests, is a lack of hope for a brighter future. If hope were there, one couldn’t be said to be hopeless.
Sometimes our perspectives and beliefs about the world create our lived reality. If we see the world as an inherently untrustworthy and dark place, that will become our reality. Likewise, if we see the world as beautiful and vibrant, that’s the world we’ll inhabit.
Perspective shifts sound almost too simple to be effective, yet there is great power in mind that, once tapped into, can be life-changing.
How to shift your perspective
The first step in shifting your perspective from hopelessness to hopefulness is to identify exactly what you feel hopeless about.
Do you feel hopeless about relationships? Your career? Your seeming lack of joie de vivre? By identifying the specific area(s) of your life in which you feel hopeless, you get on the right track to finding effective solutions.
Another helpful tip to shift your perspective is to practice gratitude. Again, seemingly another ‘too good to be true’ tip, but there’s strong evidence that practicing gratitude has a profound positive impact on our mental health, including relief and alleviation of symptoms of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair.
Are there things in your life that make you happy? What brings you joy and comfort? Are you grateful for your health, for your pet, your family? Are you grateful for the food you eat and the bed you sleep in?
There are so many little (and not so little) things to be grateful for that most of us can write a long list every day and still not run out of things to write about.
4. Control what you can, let go of what you can’t
Many of us are hopeless and even powerless in our lives because there are so many things about the world or ourselves that we want to change but can’t seem to do so. The fact is that some things are simply outside of our control, so trying to control them is futile.
Would you feel disappointed and bad about yourself if you couldn’t control the weather? Of course not. The same applies to many things in life, such as other people’s behavior, your genes (with some exceptions), or our past experiences.
What we can control, however, is our attitude and perspective. We can control how we respond to emotions and others’ behavior.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”– Charles R. Swindoll
It may not always seem like it – sometimes we react strongly to our emotions or to things other people say and do – there is a moment between stimulus and response in which we can choose an alternative outcome to any situation.
We can choose to take a moment and recognize our reactivity, and in the next moment, replace reactivity with responsibility and take a more mindful and grounded approach to life.
Such placement of our attention lets us change our lives from inside each moment, rather than trying to elicit huge change that spans a lifetime all at once. Doing so is beneficial to our mental health.
5. Reach out to a therapist
As mentioned earlier, a powerful tool against hopelessness and its associated health risks is professional therapy.
There has for a long time been an extremely unhelpful stigma around seeking help for mental health, especially in cases where a clear diagnosis hasn’t been given, but fortunately, that stigma is lifting.
More and more of us are realizing that it’s perfectly normal to seek help when we’re struggling and to do so in our mental health journey is an empowering and courageous act of self-love.
Other than seeking sources of professional help, there are some things you can do by yourself to help ease the weight of your hopelessness and even elicit positive change.
These tips are methods of becoming mentally healthy and emotionally resilient in the face of all kinds of difficult emotions, so read with that intent and apply them to your life in the face of hopelessness.
A final word…
Hopelessness is a valid feeling, so don’t get caught up thinking that your hopeless feelings are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong.’
The most important thing for you to do right now if you’re feeling hopeless is to pause, take a deep breath, and understand that you can begin your life from the present moment instead of dwelling on past failures or looking at a bleak future. Practice self compassion and take time off for some self care.
Your situation may seem hopeless, but there is always hope. Sometimes it takes a helping hand from a friend or a therapist to help you get back your mental health. Other times, it just takes some positive momentum.
Your path to a happier and more satisfying life will be as unique as your fingerprint, so just because your life may not look like someone else’s right now, don’t give up. There is hope to be found when we brave the storm of life and keep going.