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Finding Hope

When you feel hopeless, it is difficult to take any steps toward change.

In 1965 Martin Seligman "discovered" learned helplessness. He found that when animals are subjected to difficult situations they cannot control, they stop trying to escape. They become passive.

Human beings are the same. If you experience devastating defeats, a persistent situation that you can't change, or a terrifying event that you could not control your exposure to, then you may have lost hope for your ability to change your life or to change painful situations. Sometimes an ongoing mood disorder can lead to feelings of hopelessness.

Apathy or hopelessness may be puzzling to those around you. Why wouldn't you try to get a job, make friends, eat healthier, or leave someone who is abusive? When you have no hope, you see any efforts to change your life as futile. You may blame yourself. You might say that you cannot manage life, cannot make friends, and cannot succeed in getting a job. You accept whatever happens as beyond your control. You may begin to despair.

When you don’t have hope, you have no energy or motivation for therapy or for any effort to change your situation. What's the use in reaching out to meet people? You are sure you will be rejected. Why bother exercising or cleaning your home or volunteering—it won't really make a difference. You know you will always be lonely, depressed, anxious, unemployed, or stuck in the same situation that is making you miserable. You don't want to risk the pain of further disappointment by even trying.

Unfortunately, this painful despair and resignation set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have no hope, no belief in therapy or that any action you take will make any difference, then that may well be the outcome. Change is very difficult, has multiple ups and downs, and requires motivation and commitment.

There are many ways to find hope. You may have your own way. I'd love to hear what has worked for you or someone you love.

1. Find a clear path. Being able to see how the steps you are taking will lead to desired change is critical to having hope. If you don't logically see how what you are doing can have a positive result, then carrying out the plan will likely be difficult. Write down each step that you need to take to get where you want to be. If someone else is working with you, then push him or her to explain how the steps lead to the results you want.

2. Look for role models who have found solutions. There are many, many people who have overcome tremendous adversity. Reading their stories and surrounding yourself with supportive messages and people can help you build hope.

One resource is Project Hope Exchange. Part of this project is a page on their website where people record their experiences of overcoming adversity, and there is a special section for mental health challenges and life challenges.

3. Do what you know you can do. When you are in despair, taking one step that is out of your routine can help break the sense of powerlessness you have. Make your bed. Cook dinner. Talk to a friend. Take a step you know you can do and that action can make a difference over time. Keep doing it, and then try to add more actions. Overcoming the inertia of helplessness can help you build hope.

4. Perform an act of kindness. Doing acts of kindness can have a dramatic effect on your mood and outlook. Kindness triggers the release of serotonin, so it has an anti-depressant effect. It also calms stress and helps reduce pain.

Small acts of kindness that you do repeatedly can help you feel more connected and have a greater sense of contribution. Notice that doing acts of kindness repeatedly is important. Do acts of kindness daily. Even watching others perform acts of kindness can have a positive effect.

You might want to watch this TED talk about the magic of kindness.

You could also visit for more information. The Pay it Forward movement is a similar concept.

Notice your judgments, the thoughts that pass through your head stating that nothing will work for you or that performing acts of kindness is a useless idea. Let those thoughts pass through and not control your behavior. Your lack of hope may lead you to think that these ideas won’t help you.

Part of kindness is to stop judging yourself and be kind to yourself as well. How would you treat someone else who was in your situation? Practice thinking of yourself with compassion.

5. Turn to your faith. Your faith can be a strong ally in holding on to hope. Sometimes your faith offers the support of not being alone and trusting that a higher power is with you. If you are questioning your beliefs, then talk with someone in your faith whom you respect. Others have encountered difficult times, and they will understand. Voicing your questions is a step toward resolving your confusion and also a step toward hope.

6. Practice mindfulness while doing acts of kindness and in your everyday life. Your thoughts may naturally wander to the past and focus on events that didn’t work out or other situations that were painful. That will often add to your depression and hopelessness. When you are depressed, you have difficulty seeing any positive events or remembering that you were ever happy.

When you focus your attention on the here and now, you are able to find more peace and less stress. There are many websites offering free mindfulness exercises such as this one.

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