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Hope: The Mind's Magic

How to restore hope with the pandemic end in sight.

Key points

  • As people return to more normal activities after the COVID-19 pandemic, there is reason to hope.
  • Hope operates as a protective factor, making people more positive and optimistic about the future.
  • Some techniques, like letting go of fear, cultivating mindfulness, and focusing on the positive, can help boost hopefulness.
iStock/lncreativemedia
Source: iStock/lncreativemedia

The last few months, we have seen a major shift in COVID-19’s hold on our daily lives. With many Americans vaccinated, mask mandates lifting, and cities opening up to full capacity, the pandemic’s effect is decreasing. This decrease signals an increase in other things, such as hope—particularly the hope that our life can return to a more natural rhythm soon.

But what about the predictions that “life will never be the same” because we’ll be suffering from post-pandemic trauma?

The good news is, hope can help heal trauma, and we are born with the capacity to hope. It points us towards the “light at the end of the tunnel” and away from the dark days and long nights it took to get there. It gets us through our personal challenges and our shared concerns.

6 reasons why we need hope:

If you feel like you’ve lost some of your capacity for hope during the past year, you’re not alone. Here are six reasons why we need it and five ways to get it back:

1. Hope is energizing.

It is more than merely wanting something or thinking about something. When we hope, we also feel it physically—our heart rate increases, our breathing speeds up, our thinking becomes clearer, and our mood becomes more positive. Hoping prepares us to fight despair and pessimism, naturally.

2. Hope moves us forward.

It prepares us to take action, make plans, and move toward our goals. Here’s why I call it mind magic: When we are hopeful, we approach life and our problems with strategic behavior, and the results justify our hope. In other words, hope leads to action, and our action leads to creating a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. We are not ignoring realities; we are creating realities.

3. Hope helps our health.

The self-fulfilling nature of hope can be especially important when we are battling infertility, illness, disability, or a chronic disease. I am not exactly calling hope medicine—but our hope can make us seek answers, tolerate treatment, and be the kind of person that people want to help. Hope may even have more direct health benefits. Neuroscientists find that when we are feeling hopeful, our brain pumps chemicals that can block pain and accelerate healing.

Bernie S Siegel, M.D., a pioneer in psychoneuroimmunology, talked about how emotions like hope link our psychology with our nervous and immune systems. Take any group of people with symptoms, give them a placebo, like a sugar pill, and 1 out of 3 people will feel some relief from their symptoms because hope stimulates the release of our own endogenous painkiller, endorphin.

4. Hope is a protective factor.

According to some studies, optimistic people live longer, and hospital patients with a hopeful, fighting spirit are more likely to survive than patients who give up. According to many other studies, hope is a powerful antidote for anxiety and combat fatigue. After 2020, you can probably tell some stories of your own about hope enhancing your well-being and your patience during the prolonged threats from COVID-19.

5. Hope hones our perspective.

Hope is often intensified by the threat of despair, which is the emotional opposite. We hope even more for company when we are quarantined alone, hope even more for health when we are going through a pandemic, and hope even more for peace when we see civil unrest and injustice. And the more we hope, the more we appreciate a dream coming true.

6. Hope is not a steady state.

Hope is constantly peaking, diminishing, clicking off for short periods, then building again. That’s probably a good thing because living in a constant state of hope for long periods of time can be exhausting. Think, for example, of the things we hoped for all year—waiting for a call, a report, a test result, a check, or the end of the pandemic. Our body was always ready for action, and our mind was continually alert. If hope becomes a reality, we can finally experience both physical and psychological relief.

But what can we do when hope is still in the distance and we want to last for the long run?

5 steps to get hope back:

Poet Alexander Pope reminded us 300 years ago that hope springs eternal, and today’s psychiatrists agree. Like joy, love, and other positive passions, you can make more hope if you know how to. Some of us have discovered that hope can be part of faith, love, or gratitude. Others of us were given the gift of hope by our parents. But the rest of us have to give hope to ourselves.

All the following approaches can work. The trick is to try them:

1. Don’t be afraid to hope.

If you are trying to protect yourself against disappointment by hiding from hope, forget it. Disappointment comes anyway because not all hopes and dreams come true. So even if you are skeptical about the outcome, let hope motivate you to move forward, particularly if your efforts will affect the outcome.

2. Behave as if you are hopeful.

Talk to others as if you are hopeful, and talk to yourself as if you're hopeful as well. Hope is a choice—a mindset that guides your feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. In fact, neuroplasticity studies find this positive thinking helps to reinforce the brain’s amygdala circuits, which generates more hopefulness. Remind yourself that “there are many solutions to most problems” and “there’s always a way.”

3. Focus on the positive.

Unfortunately, we have all become overwhelmed by negatives—the nightly news, the internet, the changing guidance, and doom scrolling deliver them 24/7. To increase our quotient of hope, we have to practice seizing on the passing positives. We have to actively look for them. Do an internet search for “Good news about COVID,” “Social justice advances,” “New assisted reproductive technologies,” or “More good news about vaccines.” These positives can just as easily be signs of the future as the negative news reports, and positive thinking brings immediate relief from hopelessness.

4. Try meditation, mindfulness, or prayer.

All three are deeply restful—we give up re-living our past and worrying about our future. We are temporarily only in the here and now. We relax until we are ready to gather new hope and move on.

Prayer can put us in touch with a source of strength when we have no strength of our own. Meditation and mindfulness can help us find some of our own. Soon our strength will grow again, and we can move towards our hope.

5. Borrow some hope from a friend.

Take a lesson from someone with an outlook you admire. Does she deserve hope more than you do? Of course not. Is her life really better? She may be as familiar with sadness, loss, and helplessness as you are, or maybe she was in the past, at another time in her life, but look at her now! If her life really is better than yours, maybe it is because she's not afraid to allow herself to be uplifted by hope’s possibilities, to take the wonderful chance that one day a dream might become a reality.

Hope’s forward march

It is amazing, when you think about it, that people hope at all. There has been so much in our present to distract us and make us feel hopeless… yet we look toward the future. We are resilient. Through our imagination, we can see past today's problems and give ourselves a great gift: a reason to go on. Our dreams can always be born again, and we can imagine a better day.

References

*Hope and fatigue in chronic illness: The role of perceived stress. Jameson K Hirsch 1, Fuschia M Sirois 2 Psychol Bull, Jul 2017

*Hope and Stress Resilience Anthony D. Ong, Taylor Standiford, and Saarang Deshpande The Oxford Handbook of Hope Psychooncology. 2010 Sep;19(9):901-8. doi: 10.1002/pon.1836.

*Stress, coping, and hope, Susan Folkman 1,PMID: 20799373DOI: 10.1002/pon.1836.(c) 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

*HomeJournal of Social and Clinical PsychologyVol. 23, No. 3Hope and Depression: A Light in the Darkness,C. R. Snyder Published Online:June 2005

*Brain Bulletin #47 - The Science of Hope, Brain Bulletin

*The cerebral neurobiology of hope and hopelessness .Journal ArticleDatabase: APA PsycInfo, Gottschalk, L. A., Fronczek, J., & Buchsbaum, M. S. (1993). The cerebral neurobiology of hope and hopelessness. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 56(3), 270–281.

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