8 STEPS TO FINDING AND MAINTAINING HOPE
Lesley Koeppel, LCSW
As our isolating, social distancing and fear of COVID-19 continues into the cold winter months, it can be hard to feel optimistic, joyful, or hopeful. The holidays may bring about additional sadness as we may be alone and without family, friends, and normal holiday traditions. Even with several vaccines on the horizon, it will still take several months or up to a year to have life go back to normal. How do we find hope in all of this?
As humans, having hope is vital to being alive. Hope is the very thing that can demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity, as well as having a positive “something” to look forward to in the future. As Dr. Judith Rich, someone who has written a lot on hope, says, “Hope is a match in a dark tunnel, a moment of light, just enough to reveal the path ahead and ultimately the way out.”
No matter what the cause of our feeling sad and joyless (and I understand that you may have a significant tragedy you are dealing with), there are ways to still find hope, even when it seems almost impossible. Research has demonstrated that certain ways of thinking and behaving can often prevent falling into despair and depression.
A disclaimer here is that there are certain situations where you will need more help than this simple article can provide. If you feel you cannot get out of this feeling of despair on your own, you may be suffering from a clinical depression that requires professional help or immediate attention. Please see below for some important numbers, other than 9–1–1.
So, how can we achieve this and find a “match in the dark tunnel”? It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. Maintaining hope when facing great difficulties can protect us when everything seems hopeless. The most powerful example of this can be learned from Viktor Frankl in his writing of “Man’s Search for Meaning” and how he was able to survive, both physically and mentally, in his years living in a concentration camp…even after his mother, father and brother were killed there.
As a therapist, I spoke with several colleagues to get their thoughts and suggestions. I combined those with some tangible ways that have been useful to others in my private practice. Below are a few of these strategies that hopefully can help you find and maintain hope through these difficult times. And if you have anything to add to this list, please email me…I would love your input!
1) Identify what is sad for you and mourn this as a loss
Before we can look forward into the future to find hope, we must first look at the past and the present. In suggesting that you maintain hope and positivity, I do not mean that you simply push away your sadness or sweep it under the rug. As a therapist, I can tell you that this will never work. What does work, however, is identifying and acknowledging what is sad for you so that you can understand it better and can nurture yourself. It is important to mourn what you have lost, even if it is a loss of a dream, a freedom, or a way of life. Cry a little (or a lot!) and let your pain flow out of you. It is there anyway, hurting you from the inside, so just let it come out.
In terms of mourning your loss, you can try a number of things that will help you grieve. Talk with an understanding friend or family member to share your feelings. Repeat yourself as needed…sometimes just expressing it over and over helps. Journal your thoughts to get them out of you and onto paper. Meet with a therapist or join a support group, even virtually. Go for a walk or exercise. Treat yourself with the same compassion, kindness and support as you would treat a loved one who was mourning. Don’t bury these feelings or try to circumvent them. Let them out, as this is the first step in finding hope when you feel despair.
2) Control what you can
When things feel out of your control and you begin to lose hope, think about the different components of your life and set small and obtainable goals to improve or control one small thing. What comes to mind here is the part of an old Boy Scout’s song, “Little by Little” which sums this up perfectly:
If you can’t climb a mountain then climb a hill
That’s much better than standing still
There’s a way if you’ve got the will
And little-by-little you’re there.
3) Do some good
To help find hope, try finding small opportunities to make someone else feel good. You have the power to take a small action that shows compassion, appreciation and respect. Participate in small acts of kindness which will not only benefit the recipient but will also help you immensely. When you practice “random acts of kindness” or more formal /structured ways to contribute to someone else’s well-being, you will most certainly feel like you have made a difference to someone else, which will help you.
4) Change your inner dialog
We are all familiar with the “negative speak” we tend to have when feeling sad. “I can’t”, “I give up”, “that will never work”, “what’s the point” are just a few things we say to ourselves when feeling hopeless. If you can shift your thinking to become a creative problem solver and find different ways to fix a problem, you will automatically feel some kind of hope. Change your mindset and your mood will follow. Instead of shutting down and filling your thoughts with negative speak when problems come up, brainstorm and take action in different ways to work on a problem. Here, I am reminded of the children’s book, “The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper where the little engine keeps repeating as it tries to get up a hill, “I think I can, I think I can” until it actually makes it up the hill.
5) What is true?
As an offshoot to changing your inner dialog, think about things you know to be true instead of thinking about the “what ifs” of an unknown future. Additionally, we may feel sadder and more hopeless when we can’t control bad things that are happening around us. Finding what is true is the perfect antidote to this.
Gratefulness would fall under this category as well. I know, we have heard this over and over and it can sound really annoying in its simplicity. But to find at least one thing every day that you are grateful for, is part of “what is true” for you. Even if you simply start the day with a few deep breaths while telling yourself you are grateful to be alive, that is a good place to begin.
You might find the truth in the giggle of a child, the playfulness of a puppy, the rising or setting sun, the sprouting of a plant, the chirping of a bird, or the scent of a flower. Use all five senses here. I often suggest that patients in my office look at their feet and tell me everything they know to be true about where their feet are in this moment. This is a great exercise in reducing anxiety as it focuses on everything we know “in this moment” versus an unpredictable future. This is one of the basic tenets of Mindfulness. Another “mindfulness” way to disarm these negative thoughts about the future is to visualize them as big puffy clouds in the sky. Watch them pass by in your mind’s eye. This allows you to distance yourself from the thoughts, see them as something different, and focus on what you know to be true in this moment.
6) Move around/get your blood flowing…especially when you don’t feel like it
When we are feeling hopeless, our inclination is to pull the covers over our head and stay in bed. And for sure, the last thing we feel like doing when feeling down is to move around. But not getting our blood flowing with some movement, will almost always further feelings of hopelessness and despair. Conversely, even moderate movement and exercise has been proven to lift spirits. You may not “feel like it” but making a personal goal to get moving every day, no matter what, will help you feel a bit better.
7) Nothing is forever, “This too shall pass”
This phrase always reminded me of an elderly relative of mine that would repeat this mantra anytime something bad happened. I didn’t understand it as a child with little to refer to in my young life, but I certainly understand it now with a long history of things in my past. Think back to a time when you went through something difficult. At that time, you might have thought that feeling or situation would last forever, and you would never get through it. But you did. You ARE resourceful and resilient, as you were back then. Think about what helped you then in terms of what was useful and what was not. Rely on your past history to know this as true.
8) Stay connected
It is important to stay connected to others at a time when you are not feeling hopeful. It could be a phone call, a Zoom call, a socially distant walk, an email or a text. Making sure we are not fully alone will help with having some of these feelings abate.
I am hopeful that these strategies will be useful as a way to help others keep their sad moods and feelings of hopelessness from overwhelming them or turning into something more serious like a clinical depression. Try them and see if they make a difference to you. If, however, your depression worsens or interferes with your regular life activities, you should seek professional help from a doctor or therapist. Other than calling 9–1–1, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273–8255 where help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Lesley Koeppel is a Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field for more than 25 years. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and New York University with a Masters of Social Work. She maintains a private practice in NYC where she helps her clients achieve their life goals. Her expertise in support groups, individual counseling and oncology helps provide her patients with a unique compassion, understanding and direct approach. She began her career working with oncology patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and running support groups for patients dealing with leukemia and lymphoma. She continues to run those same support groups at The Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation. She can be contacted directly: Lkoeppel@me.com