Hopelessness Leaving You Numb?

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Without hope, everything can feel hard, even getting out of bed in the morning.

Why do feelings of hopelessness happen, and what can you do about them?

The different kinds of hopelessness

Sometimes we feel hopeless about who we are. This can be as we are caught up in comparing ourselves to others, or to some ideal we think we should be living up to. Or it can be as we struggle to show ourselves compassion and tend to be a perfectionist, or too self-critical.

Other times, hopelessness hits like a tsunami when the world just seems too much. Our own personal struggles seem to collide with all the craziness in the world. It can feel hard to care enough to continue if we’ve just lost our job, and there is a pointless war nearby we can’t do anything about.

Are feelings of hopelessness a serious problem?

Feelings of hopelessness can be a sign of depression, either that you are falling into it for the first time, or are about to have another episode.

And if our hopelessness is about ourselves, it can lead to dangerously low self-esteem if it goes on too long. Or even things like self-harm.

Research also shows a dangerous correlation between hopelessness, loneliness, and suicidal thinking. In fact hopelessness alongside depression is one of the primary factors leading to suicide.

Hopelessness and acting out

Feelings of hopelessness are also a major player in the moments we do things we end up regretting. For example, a study of risky behaviours amongst adolescents living in poor inner-city areas connected hopelessness to violent and aggressive behaviour, substance abuse, and sexual acting out.

Why do I feel so hopeless?

Some forms of hopelessness are more manageable than others as they have an obvious root. We did a bad presentation at work, or we had a difficult breakup. In such cases it’s pertinent to give yourself some time to recover and feel yourself again.

But it’s that rolling, overwhelming sense of helplessness that is more complicated. The one that seems to come from many factors at once, or just seems to creep up on you, and you aren’t even sure why you suddenly feel like such a loser.

Often these sorts of hopeless episodes come from ways we learned to see ourselves and the world when we were a child.

Perhaps we were criticised, or not allowed to be ourselves. Or we lived through negative or difficult experiences and traumas that taught us we are not worthy. Or to believe that the world is a dangerous, horrible place.

Hopelessness and lack of connection

One of the reasons childhood trauma always leaves us so hopeless is that it affects our ability to connect with others.

So a bad thing happens, which is hard enough, but then we don't have the skillset to source support for it from those around us. So we spiral into hopelessness.

An example of this can be if we suffer from borderline personality disorder (BPD). When we feel vulnerable and want support from others, we somehow end up lashing out at others instead. We are left feeling beyond hope or care.

What can help if I am feeling beyond hope?

In such cases it’s worth taking some cues from different types of talk therapy.

What CBT therapy suggests helps hopelessness

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) would see a lot of hopelessness as a cognitive distortion, a thought that seems true that isn't. It would encourage you to challenge your hopeless thinking.

  • Write out your hopeless thought.
  • What is its exact opposite?
  • What proof can you list for both sides of this story, the hopeless thought and the positive opposite?
  • So then what would be a more balanced thought you could now have that is somewhere between the two?

For example, if you feel “I will never again find a partner that amazing now he’s left”. The opposite would be, “I will easily and quickly find a better partner”. Perhaps as proof, he was the smartest man you met, but perhaps you can also see that in the past you met partners quickly and in fact you have met many smart men in your life. So a more balanced thought might be, “My partner was a good guy, but it’s possible I will meet another good person with time.”

ACT therapy and how it approaches hard situations

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) focuses on helping you to accept what you can’t control, recognise what you can change, and commit to taking the action that will lead to a better mood and life. It also integrates mindfulness, which means we accept what is and that life has some suffering involved.

If you look carefully at the situation, can you write out what is actually beyond your control and what might not be? What one small action could you take to help things feel better, and when will you take it?

But the world has gone mad and there is nothing I can do

Let's again take the example of a world at war. Here ACT therapy would point out that human existence involves some suffering. And that we have to accept we can’t single handedly stop the war.

But then you’d be encouraged to look at actions you actually could do that would help you feel better. This could be fundraising for refugees of war, protesting against the war, or something like looking at the ‘war’ in your own personal life, and working to heal rifts and bring more peace to the world.

Time to stop feeling so hopeless and start learning how to recognise just how powerful and resourceful you really are? Book a session now with a talk therapist that suits your budget.

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