Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Overcome Hopelessness Thinking and Stop Feeling Depressed

Cross the bridge from depression to feeling good again.

Whether you are in a depressed mood that may soon lift, or struggle with a recurring depression, you probably want relief as soon as you can get it. However, depression is a complicated condition. It has many unpleasant features, such as hopelessness thinking and painful mood. You may also have anxiety and other challenges to meet, such as stress from trauma.

Change takes time. However, you may speed the process by combating a common factor in depression: hopelessness thinking. By doing this you can create a transdiagnostic effect and decrease problem-related areas, such as anxiety and anger.

Hopelessness and Expectations

Hopelessness thoughts shape your perceptions and degrade your mood. These negative thoughts pivot on expectations, such as you can't change and your life will continue to go badly. You may believe that your depression will never end.

If you believe you’ll never stop feeling miserable, hopelessness thinking can have undesirable consequences. One big consequence is that you can suggest yourself into a negative cycle where you feel and act the way you think. Another is that you will tend to validate your hopelessness beliefs by finding examples to support them. Thus, your hopelessness expectations can result in negative conclusions that can affect your mood for the worse and continue to do so until you break free from this cycle of misery.

Expectations are changeable. Knowing what you can control, then taking corrective actions, can help lift your mood. For example, hopelessness beliefs are not the same as facts. I’ll isolate hopelessness thinking and we’ll see what you can do to free yourself from this mental trap.

Placebo Effects

Understanding hopelessness thinking is a step toward taking that mental burden off your shoulders. Let's start by exploring how a special form of suggestion can change hopelessness thinking.

Hopelessness beliefs are powerful. Placebos are a special form of suggestion that can subvert this thinking. (A placebo is an inert substance or special condition that you believe is curative.) For example, if you believe a pill can free you from depression, even a yellow-colored sugar pill administered by an authority can bring about relief. This is the placebo effect and it partially comes about for two reasons: 1. you no longer think hopeless thoughts; 2. your thinking has resulted in both a psychological and biological change from a negative mood to a positive one.

Placebo effects rely on suggestibility. Thus, if you believed that a witchdoctor had the power to cure you of depression, you may feel relief following a magical spell. Here you go from thinking you have no hope of feeling optimistic.

About 38 percent of those with depression have a positive response to a placebo. This effect is durable for about 80 percent of this sub-group. That impressive result shows the power of the mind to affect the brain and body to diminish feelings of depression.

Even when placebos are initially active, there may be a downside. If you are suggestible, you may later suggest yourself back into a depressive funk. Dealing effectively with negative suggestions (faulty hopelessness expectations) is a tested way out of this trap.

You may be highly limited in your ability to create a placebo effect on demand. However, if you want to believe in something or somebody that can change your thinking, put your fate in your own able hands. Follow a process of systematically eliminating hopelessness expectations.

Going from Point A to Point C

Is it possible for you to anticipate what it would be like to overcome depression by making yourself the master of your fate? Here is one way to do this. Instead of automatically defaulting toward finding ways to confirm your hopelessness expectations, intentionally find reasons to disconfirm these expectations. That act may help stop the flow of this form of automatic negative thinking.

Here is an approach that may help. Imagine a bridge. On the one side, you have depression. On the other, you have relief. To get relief takes crossing the bridge. How do you get from point A, where you believe you can never stop feeling miserable, to Point C, where you feel and act hopeful? You can start at Point B. This is where you step onto the bridge.

Here is the first step. You recognize the adverse emotional effects of hopelessness thinking. You use this awareness as a platform for taking corrective actions. For example, if you convince yourself that you will feel depressed forever, how do you identify this hopelessness thought if it feels real and occurs in different contexts? The answer is simple: you can tell hopelessness thinking by its results. Hopelessness thoughts worsen your already depressed mood.

The Basics

You can recognize hopelessness thinking by comparing thoughts that you suspect reflect hopelessness against standard examples of hopelessness thinking. Here are three: 1. "It's no use going on."; 2. "I have no life."; 3. "It's all over for me.” If these thoughts sound like you, you can debunk this thinking and feel better.

What do hopelessness thoughts have in common? They reflect a point of view where you have no way to succeed, can't cope, can't change, or are incapable of improvement. These are contestable beliefs. Without them, would you act differently? If you believe that you would act differently, here is a second step. You act to dampen your hopelessness thinking to get relief from this part of depression. You can debunk hopelessness thinking in many ways. For example,

  • Question your hopelessness thoughts. What does it mean when you tell yourself, "It's no use going on"? Does this mean that nothing over the next three years could possibly happen to change your thoughts or life situation? A rapid and positive change in perspective, where you accept that your depression is not necessarily permanent, can help liberate your mind from fixed hopelessness beliefs.
  • Check to see if you are making unwarranted predictions. Hopelessness is a prediction where you assert that your future is fixed. If that were the case, you would have no free will. You'd also have no cause to blame yourself for everything because you'd have no control over anything.
  • Make a switch from fixed beliefs to probability thinking. Hopelessness thoughts are not the same as the laws of chance and probability. Because you believe something does not mean you can prove it. The unexpected can happen in fortunate ways, too. You can change your mind to avoid embracing fatalistic beliefs.

Through the actions you take to overcome hopelessness thinking, you may develop a realistic optimism. This optimism is that you can master yourself by working knowledgeably to overcome hopelessness thinking. The odds are that you won’t get that kind of power from a placebo.

Never Give Up

There is much reason for hope, even when you can't see it at first. You can accidentally short-circuit hopelessness thoughts by flipping a page in a book and unexpectedly getting an idea that gives you a different perspective. The unexpected can happen in other ways, such as your depression may spontaneously lift. However, your best bet is to deal with hopelessness thinking by learning about this enemy and its points of vulnerability. Then work to weaken the vulnerable points until hopelessness thinking fades.

Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC
Source: Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art and Design, Fayetteville NC

Depression rarely lifts in an eye blink. Nevertheless, you can teach yourself to see beyond the veils of darkness, and to accept (maybe not like) parts of what you see.

The smallest acts of change can make a big difference. If nothing else, you’ve shown yourself that you have not given up. Your whole life situation can’t be hopeless. By acting to toss the weight of hopelessness thinking from your shoulders, you’ve opened the gates of hope for yourself.

For more help on overcoming hopelessness thinking, click on The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.

© Dr. Bill Knaus, 2015. All rights reserved.

More from Bill Knaus Ed.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Bill Knaus Ed.D.
More from Psychology Today
4 Min Read
Laziness is often a symptom of something more significant, like depression or anxiety, and it should not be something we judge harshly.