Hope provides a force to care about ourselves, others, and the world around us, so when hopelessness emerges, it can erode all motivation. Feelings of hopelessness are most closely linked to depression, but many life experiences and situations may induce this result. Fortunately, overcoming hopelessness is possible with a concerted effort that could include interventions like professional therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.
What Causes Feelings of Hopelessness?
Tremendous variability exists with the hopelessness and the causes of hopelessness people experience, but many times, the feelings are connected to problems people have meeting their basic needs. When people experience loss, disruption, or instability, they can respond with increased levels of hopelessness.
In the book Hope in the Age of Anxiety, authors Sciolli and Biller explore common causes of hopelessness and how to overcome these unwanted feelings.
The authors identified nine types of hopelessness that stem from unfulfillment with three primary needs:1
Attachment represents a person’s connection to other people, their family, the community, or the world. When the attachment is strong, people feel hope and a sense of belonging, but when the attachment is low, people experience alienation, a sense of being alone and disconnected from the group. Alienation can come when people physically distance themselves, like when moving to another state, or when they emotionally distance themselves by pulling away from the relationship.
Mastering refers to a person’s ability to be capable and in control of their life. With mastery, people feel like they can make their own way through life to produce the wanted change. When mastery is low, powerlessness presents and robs people of the belief that they can make their own way. A person can feel powerless when they are performing poorly with their school, work, or home responsibilities or from a series of mistakes.
A healthy and well-functioning person will experience high levels of survival, but if failing mental or physical health sets in, a sense of impending doom will begin to take shape. For some, even the normal signs of decline can feel like they are being pulled into a black hole without the chance of recovering.
To complicate matters, a person may experience two or three of these needs failing at the same time. Feeling trapped in a poor relationship can result in issues affecting doom and alienation and lead to hopelessness. Similarly, a person struggling with mastery and survival issues due to physical disabilities and limited education can feel hopeless and unable to change their status.
Like so many other issues, the likelihood of hopelessness developing is coordinated by the balance of risk and protective factors a person carries. Risk factors are stressful and undesirable qualities of a person’s biological, environmental, and family life, with protective factors being the positive, wanted qualities.2
Having many risk factors without the protective factors will create a sense of hopelessness, while having protective factors that outweigh the risks can create wanted effects like optimism, love, trust, and hope. Some of the most significant risk factors are substance abuse, physical health complications, and mental health conditions.
Other risks factors include:2
- Chaotic home environment
- Exposure to violence
- Parents with mental health conditions
How Hopelessness Can Affect Your Mental Health
Hopelessness and mental health share an intimate and bidirectional relationship. As hopelessness increases, a person’s overall mental health declines, and as a person’s mental health declines, hopelessness grows. Someone with depression could see their symptoms increase as hopelessness grows and see hopelessness worsen as depressive symptoms rise.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Substance use disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Adjustment disorders
- Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED)
- Other depressive disorders like persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
High levels of hopelessness can begin to impact numerous mental health symptoms negatively, and lead to:
- Decreased motivation
- Changes in diet and eating habits
- More variable sleep patterns
- Decreased energy
- Decreased interest in people, hobbies, or activities
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Thoughts of death and dying
Feelings of Hopelessness, Self-Harm, and Suicide Completion
The connections between hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide are perhaps the most troubling effects of hopelessness. Studies consistently find that one of the most consistent predictors of both self-harm and suicide completion was hopelessness.4,5
People with higher levels of hopelessness are more likely to engage in self-injurious behaviors like cutting, burning, and skin-picking than people with higher levels of hope. Along the same lines, people with higher values of hopelessness as measured on a hopelessness scale were more likely to complete suicide.
This information illustrates just how powerful hopelessness is. As a feeling, it is one that has the power to impact a person’s thoughts and behaviors significantly.
When to Get Professional Help for Feelings of Hopelessness
People will need to get professional help for hopelessness when it starts to consistently or powerfully influence their lives. Like with many other mental health issues, getting help for hopelessness soon after symptoms begin is essential to stop the symptom from growing and spreading to other conditions. Letting hopelessness build and go untreated can result in new or worsening mental health conditions.
Hopelessness becomes a problem when it:3
- Appears most of the day
- Persists steadily for more than two weeks
- Begins to negatively impact responsibilities at school, work, or home
- Increases thoughts or behaviors related to self-harm and suicide
When any or all of these warning signs are present, professional help will be valuable.
Who Should I Consult for Help in Overcoming Hopelessness?
When seeking professional consultation for hopelessness, people should consider various types of mental health professionals. People may even choose to begin the process by speaking with their primary care physician (PCP). By consulting a therapist like a professional counselor, social worker, or psychologist, the individual will learn new (and enhance current) coping skills. Individual, group, couples, or family therapy sessions can be useful ways to develop these skills.
Psychiatrists and PCPs are more likely to address the high degree of hopelessness with medication, rather than therapy. An antidepressant or a combination of medications could improve levels of hope, alone or with therapy.
How to Find a Therapist
Someone interested in finding a therapist to address feelings of hopelessness could explore options online, in school, in a community agency, or by seeking a referral from a nearby doctor’s office. People feeling hopeless could see dramatic improvements in just a few months, while those with hopelessness linked to severe mental health conditions like eating disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders, may require much longer courses of treatment.
Like with other forms of therapy, the fees for treatment focused on rebuilding hope will vary with session rates between $50 and $150 without insurance. With insurance coverage, the out-of-pocket costs per session could be very low.
8 Ways to Cope With Hopelessness
Hopelessness is a powerful force that can rob a person of their motivation, their optimism, and their will to live, but people can overcome it. By taking simple steps to modify your thoughts and adjust your behaviors, you can successfully cope with hopelessness.
1. Know Your Sources
Every experience, every situation, every conversation, and every thought influences your level of hopelessness. Which people, places, and things boost your hope and feelings of encouragement, and which ones leave you feeling defeated and deflated?
Unless you can begin to identify the sources of your hopelessness, there is no way to change the way you feel.
To complete this process, consider:
- Checking on your feelings of hope and hopelessness several times throughout the day
- Track your behavioral situations like what you did and who you were with
- Document your thinking patterns to acknowledge how thoughts are affecting your feelings
- Compile the data to search for connections
Sometimes the links can be obvious like having a bad day at work triggering hopelessness, but other times, the associations are vague. Keep gathering information to know for sure.
2. Escape and Modify Your Triggers
With the data gathered, make the decision to change the triggers you can and escape the triggers you can’t modify. If spending time around a certain person consistently makes you feel hopeless, make the conscious decision to stay away. Explaining this choice to others can seem daunting, but your level of hope is worth making changes for.
People can avoid many of their triggers, but at times, the person, place, or thing is unavoidable. Some types of unavoidable triggers include:
- People like coworkers, teachers, bosses, family members, and neighbors
- Places like work, certain parts of the community, and school
- Situations like anniversaries, seasons, and holidays
With these triggers being unavoidable, you will need to adjust your thoughts to adjust your feelings. Some positive ways to adjust your thinking include:
- Recognizing your strengths
- Giving yourself compliments
- Reminding yourself that these triggers cannot control you
- Focusing on the people, places, and things that instill hope
3. Adjust Your Physical Health
It may seem unrelated, but how you feel physically will have a significant impact on how you feel mentally. When your sleep, diet, or physical activity suffer, all of your being suffers.6
To take care of your physical health:6
- Make time for sleep: Start a bedtime routine to train your body to prepare for sleep by going to bed at the same time each night and winding down for an hour ahead of time. Put away the phone and enjoy a dark, distraction-free space.
- Eat well: Eating well does not mean that you must cut out all of the items you enjoy eating, but it does mean making a concerted effort to add more fresh fruits and vegetables. At the same time, look to reduce the sugary drinks and empty calories from your diet.
- Increase the exercise: Intense physical activity means different things to different people, so don’t think you need to complete a triathlon. Instead, focus on starting slowly and building up the time and intensity of your exercise.
4. Seek Out Your Supports
Now that you have worked to avoid or modify your interactions with people who trigger your hopelessness, commit more time and energy to engage with people who inspire hope. Call, schedule video chats, and plan visits with these friends and loved ones. Doing so will help balance out the hopelessness you feel.6
If you feel like no one sparks hope and optimism in your life, continue the search. Chances are great that plenty of people can create the wanted change. You only have to discover them.
5. Practice Gratitude
Hopelessness has a way of drawing out all of the characteristics of yourself, your situation, and the world that you do not like. By focusing on these issues, you only feel worse. Choose to move in the other direction by bringing more gratitude into your life. With gratitude, you persuade your brain towards thinking of the parts of the world that bring you joy, happiness, contentment, fulfillment, connection, and belonging.
Hopelessness can serve as a pair of blinders at times. These blinders do not allow people to see the positives in their life because hopelessness and depression only want to create more hopelessness and depression. Nudging yourself towards finding gratitude helps to undo the damage caused by hopelessness.
Many people find success with gratitude journals, which involves spending some time each day noticing and writing down the positives around them.
6. Avoid Negative Coping Skills
All of the best coping skills will be undone quickly by a person engaging in negative coping skills. Unhealthy coping skills vary, but some constants include the heavy use or abuse of alcohol and other drugs.6
Substances may seem like a quick and easy way to “forget your problems” and “unwind for a bit,” but drugs and alcohol almost universally make the situation worse. Always take your prescription medication as prescribed, and talk to an expert about your substance use if quitting is challenging.
7. Call in the Professionals
Anyone who thinks their hopelessness is too powerful or too complex should seek professional treatment. Consulting with a therapist and attending therapy are wonderful strategies for people who are struggling to cope with their hopelessness.
Individual therapy is great for one-on-one treatment, but group therapy and couples therapy options could be better fits. These treatments give you direct access to a professional who can assess your situation and offer effective interventions tailored to your specific form of hopelessness.
Some people may thrive with the support offered from online or in-person support groups. Though these groups often lack professional guidance, they offer a way to connect with others.
8. Stay Consistent
None of the coping skills listed here will make any difference without regularity, so for any change to occur, consistency is critical. By making small changes and watching the results over time, people can gain a better understanding of their hopelessness, what makes it worse, and what makes it better.
Involve your support system in the process to help maintain your motivation and build a level of accountability.
How To Support a Loved One Through a Time of Hopelessness
Struggling with personal feelings of hopelessness is challenging, and witnessing a friend or loved one battle with the feeling presents its own set of complications.
To support someone you love through a period of hopeless:6
- Approach the situation from a stance of patience, kindness, support, and encouragement
- Keep them engaged in activities and interests. Try inviting them to outings or offer to stop over for a visit.
- Share your experience with hope and hopelessness while making time to ask questions and listen to their situation.
- Emphasize the importance of professional treatment and the limitations of what you can do as a loving support.
- Take mentions of self-injury and suicide very seriously, and contact emergency services like 9-1-1 when needed.
Perhaps, the worst mistake that people make when trying to help a loved one with a complicated issue like hopelessness is taking too much responsibility for the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Do your best to maintain realistic expectations of yourself and of them.
Resources for People Dealing With Hopelessness
Hopelessness is a powerfully negative force in the lives of many. Fortunately, there are plenty of organizations dedicated to supporting people through challenges like: