by Andrea M. Darcy
What is hopelessness? It is when we feel that we have no options left.
If we were a balloon, it’s not just that all the air is gone. We are sure there is also a hole in the rubber, and that there is no feasible way we will ever recover from our utter deflation. “Why do I feel hopeless? Because I am hopeless.”
But when you understand what hopelessness really is, you’ll realise that most of us have far more options than we realise.
Symptoms of hopelessness
Not sure if what you are feeling is hopelessness, or you are just feeling low?
If you work with a counselling psychologist they might use a special questionnaire with you, the ‘Beck Hopelessness Scale’, that actually rates your level of hopelessness (yes, really).
But you can tell for yourself by looking for the main symptoms of hopelessness:
This last one, negative thinking, is important, and connected to all the others. Hopelessness is about the future (and what we perceive as a lack thereof). And as we are not in the future, how do we get there? With our thoughts. And unless we are living through a war, natural disaster or great loss, then the thoughts we have when we feel hopeless are rarely based in fact.
So why do you feel hopeless? You are generally being driven by negative perspectives, beliefs, and assumptions.
Are you thinking yourself hopeless?
Many of these patterns of non-fact based thinking we practise when feeling hopeless are what is called ‘cognitive distortions’ in psychology. These can include:
- all or nothing thinking (I have no future, I will never be happy again, nobody will ever love me).
- catastrophising (everything will go wrong, it’s the end of the road).
- fortunetelling (it will never get better, if I tried something bad would happen).
- labelling (I’m a loser, it’s a failure).
- discounting the positive (yes, I didn’t lose my job, but I’ll definitely be in the next round of cuts).
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Of course it’s not as simple as just ‘deciding to think positive’. Thoughts such as these can be hard to control, are ways of thinking we’ve used for so long we don’t even know how to think differently, and/or are related to deep-seated issues.
Why do I feel hopeless all the time?
It’s normal to feel hopeless if you have recently experienced a big overwhelming life change like a natural disaster, accident, bereavement, divorce, or breakup. In this case you need to give yourself several months to work through your emotions and eventually a sense of hope returns.
But if you have actually felt hopeless for a long time – for several months, years, or even, secretly, for most of your life – then it’s likely that you have had a traumatic experience in your past that has damaged the way that you think about yourself, others, and the world.
This might have been a childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, abandonment, or poverty. Or it could be that you did not have an opportunity to form a loving, trusting bond with a caregiver as an infant, leading to attachment issues.
Why you need to pay attention to hopelessness
If hopelessness is something you’ve felt for a long time, then it can feel so normal to you that you don’t even realise how much of a problem it is. You simply can no longer imagine a life where you feel that you have worth, and that your future has hope in it.
But it is very important to seek help if you recognise yourself in descriptions of hopelessness. Helplessness is a symptom of various mental health issues and, if left untreated, can leave you more vulnerable to feeling suicidal.
Hopelessness and mental health issues
Not surprisingly, feeling hopeless is one of the major symptoms of depression.
But it’s also a part of the following mental health issues:
What sorts of talk therapy can help me with feelings of hopelessness?
Cognitive therapies are often suggested for feelings of hopelessness. They work to help you recognise an change the link between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. (Read our article that explains all the different types of cognitive therapy for more).
Existential therapy is another approach altogether that some find useful for hopelessness. It uses philosophy to help you determine what actually matters for you, and how you can make steps toward a life that feels meaningful.
Would you like to talk to an experienced counsellor or psychotherapist about your feelings of hopelessness? Harley Therapy now connects you to professional talk therapists across the UK, as well as worldwide via Skype.
Have a question about hopelessness, or want to share your own experience with it? Post in our public comment box below.
Andrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor, trained in person-centred counselling and coaching. She often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy