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 have experienced devastating defeats, a persistent situation that you couldn’t change, or experienced terror and been out of control of escape from that terror, then you may have lost hope for your ability to change your life or to change painful situations.
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 learned helplessness, you believe any efforts to change your life are futile. You probably blame yourself. You may say that there is something so wrong with you that you cannot manage life, cannot make friends and cannot succeed in getting a job. You just accept whatever happens to you. You don’t have hope. For people who are emotionally sensitive, it’s particularly easy to fall into despair.
When you have no hope, then 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 sets 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. 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. 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. Even watching others perform acts of kindness can have a positive effect. Small acts of kindness that you do repeatedly can help you feel more connected and have a greater sense of contribution. You might like to watch this TED talk about the magic of kindness and visit Lifevestinside.com. The Pay it Forward movement is a similar concept. Notice your judgments and let them pass as your lack of hope will lead you to think that these ideas don’t apply to you. Try kindness repeatedly.
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 onto 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 that you respect. Others have encountered difficult times and they will understand. Voicing your questions is a step toward resolving your confusion and is also a step toward hope.
6. Practice mindfulness. Your mind naturally will focus on what is difficult or scary. Dwelling on past events often brings depression. Focusing on future events may trigger anxiety. When you live in the here and now, and keep brining your mind back to 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.
Note: The Healing Hearts of Families Conference (2015) will be held in Houston, Texas on February 14. Registration is now open on the website for the Council on Alcohol and Drugs Houston. Click on the Prevention/Education tab and then click on workshops and events. Looking forward to seeing you there!