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How to Overcome Hopelessness

Sometimes we feel hopeless because we get tunnel vision.

Key points

  • Hopelessness often coincides with a narrowed perspective on what is important or possible.
  • Reviewing the evidence that positive changes in mood and hopefulness are possible can help in coping with present hopelessness.
  • "Acting as if" you are hopeful and mindfulness exercises are additional strategies for overcoming feelings of hopelessness.

Depression is a system of beliefs, behaviors, and ways of relating to people that keeps you locked in a trap. But there are ways out of this trap.

In previous posts, I have discussed how low self-esteem can lead to more depression by making you avoid people, remain passive, ruminate about your problems, and criticize yourself for being imperfect. I suggested that irrational and demanding rules for yourself lead to more self-criticism and that replacing self-criticism with self-correction, learning, and acceptance can go a long way toward helping you overcome depression.

Eric Ward via Unsplash
Source: Eric Ward via Unsplash

In this post, we are going to look at one of the key elements of depression: the belief that things are hopeless. If you think that your problems are hopeless, you are likely to give up trying, isolate yourself, become more depressed, and ruminate.

I have found that hopelessness is one of the first things I want to address with my patients. Finding that your mood can change can encourage you to try new techniques, strategies, or medications. Changing your daily routine or changing your environment can give you the boost that you need to experiment with new behaviors. And changing your thinking can open the doors to taking steps to reverse your depression.

Let’s look at how you can reverse your hopelessness.

1. What are you feeling hopeless about?

You may believe that your mood will never change—that you will always feel depressed. Or you may feel hopeless about ever finding a rewarding relationship or about achieving other goals that you think are essential. Let’s take your mood. Let’s say that right now you might rate your hopelessness at 9 out of 10—extreme hopelessness. That feels terrible, I am sure, and this would discourage anyone. But let’s see if that feeling changes during the next day or so.

I have found it useful for my patients to rate their positive and negative emotions every waking hour of the week. Even the most “hopeless” people find that their moods change depending on the time of day, what they are doing, who they are with, and what they are thinking. If moods change during a day, then maybe more change is possible. Keep an open mind about change.

2. What goals are not hopeless in your life?

There may be many other goals—major and minor—that you do not feel hopeless about. Focus on those instead of the ones you feel you can’t hope to achieve. When we feel hopeless about something we get hijacked and focused on that one thing. For example, let’s say you are feeling lonely and you think that you will always feel lonely. Are there other specific behaviors or goals that you are not hopeless about? Think about behaviors that you have some control over—contacting people you know, reading, listening to music, exercising, learning something new, meditation, helping someone else, or showing kindness toward yourself.

Hopelessness seems like a global and vague concept—but narrow it down to one thing you are feeling hopeless about and then pivot toward things you have some control over. As you turn to goals over which you have control, your hopelessness begins to fade for that moment.

3. Ask yourself if you have felt hopeless before. Did things change?

I think all of us have feelings of hopelessness at times. You go through a breakup, lose a job, feel disappointed with a friend, or someone you love dies—these events will trigger despondency in many of us. I know I have had feelings of hopelessness many times in my life. And each time I finally realized that those feelings would change. In fact, every emotion that we have is temporary—even if it seems permanent. If your past feelings of hopelessness have changed, then you may ask yourself if it is possible that your current feelings will change.

4. Why do you think things are hopeless?

Write down your reasons and then examine them. For example, let’s imagine that you are feeling hopeless after a breakup—you think, “I will never be happy again.” Those feelings are not unusual after a breakup. But are you really sure that you will never be happy again? What is the reason that you would never feel better again? Perhaps you think, “I feel so miserable now, I can’t imagine feeling better.” This is what is called “emotional reasoning”—you are basing your predictions about your future mood on how you feel right now. Is that rational? Or you may think that you cannot imagine being happy with this person. But did you have feelings of happiness before you met them? Try to challenge your negative beliefs about your future moods. We are often poor predictors of our future emotions.

5. Try an exercise in mindful awareness.

You’ll see that you cannot be hopeless about the present moment—and you can come back to the present moment anytime. Hopelessness is always about the future. Mindfulness is about the present moment. You can try any number of mindfulness exercises, such as mindful awareness of your breath or paying attention to the sights and sounds around you. Or peeling an orange and immersing yourself in the fragrance. Or listening mindfully to relaxing music. Bringing yourself back to a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment can release you for that moment from the oppression of your hopelessness.

6. Act against your hopelessness.

Our beliefs and moods often become self-fulfilling prophecies. If I feel hopeless, I will isolate myself, remain passive, and ruminate. But acting the opposite of the way you feel is often a good way to break the chains of hopelessness. If you were not feeling hopeless, what actions would you take? Perhaps you would exercise, contact a friend, take on a new task, make plans with someone, go for a walk. “Acting as if” is often the first step toward a more hopeful future.

7. Realize that no one specific person or experience is necessary for your happiness.

Sometimes we feel hopeless because we get tunnel vision. We focus on one person, one experience, one goal that we think is essential. For example, you go through a breakup and think that this person was essential to your happiness—even though you had experiences of happiness before you met them. Or you think that because you lost your job that you are hopeless—even though that job could not be essential for happiness since no one else had that job and they did not feel hopeless. This over-focus and inflexibility can add to depression. List all the reasons why this one goal is not essential and then move on to other goals that are within your reach.

Keep in mind that overcoming depression and hopelessness takes time. It’s like building a new skill, a new way of thinking and behaving.

To find a mental health professional who can help with depression, visit Psychology Today's therapy directory.

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