“Studies show that the more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed.”
~Kelly McGonigal, PhD. (The Willpower Instinct)
I have surrounded myself with negative thoughts in the past. Living in the wreckage of the future, as I like to put it. Right now in my life, I can’t imagine waking up and not being excited about the day! Some may so “Oh, that’s easy to do when things are going so well for you”. OK, maybe you’ve got me there a little. One thing I can say, is that I wake up and immediately thank God. I wake up in gratitude and try to stay that way all day. However, I can relate to those who wake up each day and feel no hope. They wake up knowing everything is going to go wrong today. “If something bad is gonna happen…it’ll happen to me” mentality. Basically, you’re the 1 out of 20 people in your party at a restaurant who gets the under-cooked steak and dirty silverware and everyone else’s is perfect. But, you also thought in advance dinner would go wrong.
It’s not to say I don’t ever have negative thoughts. I just know what to do with them when they pop in my head now so they don’t last. But instead of writing what I’ve been through and how I’ve come out on the other side, I thought I would let a doctor from Psychology Today share her insight. Maybe this won’t apply to you today, but I have a feeling you know someone who it does. I know I do and it hurts my heart to see them feeling hopeless and negative all the time.
By: Karyn Hall, Ph.D.
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 couldn’t change, or experienced a terrifying situation 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 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.
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.
Notice your judgments, the thoughts that pass through your head stating that nothing will work for you or that 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 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 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 in 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: You might find The Emotionally Sensitive Person podcast helpful.