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Finding Hope When Things Feel Gloomy

By Jenny Taitz | November 18, 2020 | The New York Times

In my practice as a clinical psychologist, on more days than not, I hear some version of this plea: “How can I feel hopeful without deluding myself?”

I get it. While helping appropriately skeptical people build meaningful lives, I never want to sugarcoat the state of the world. Feeling frustration and pain makes sense during this unnerving time.

Yet there is still room for hope, which isn’t a flimsy feeling or about convincing yourself that things will improve. Hope is an action-filled process — and I teach my patients to look at it that way, too. According to a renowned hope researcher, Dr. Charles Snyder, who was a professor in psychology at the University of Kansas, hope arises when you identify paths to approach your goals alongside a willingness to persevere despite obstacles.

When you equate hope with empowering behaviors, it doesn’t feel optimistic so much as realistic.

But even when pursuing hope feels unnatural, it can be liberating. Maintaining hope when facing challenges predicts both emotional and physical resilience, while hopelessness, or the combination of experiencing negative life events and believing you’re powerless, fuels depression.

“Hope is a psychological stabilizer — it protects our well-being from stressful events,” said Mark Manson, an author who writes about hope and happiness.

Even if you feel emotionally depleted now, research suggests that it’s possible to consciously and systematically increase hope. In analyzing dozens of studies on brief hope interventions in older adults, Silvia Hernandez, a doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said cognitive behavioral therapies can significantly improve hope in people struggling with depression, health and bereavement.

“We know that if we can help a person bear the storm, they will eventually see sunlight,” Ms. Hernandez said. “Holding onto the smallest sliver of hope can be enough to pull us through and ultimately save a life.”

Here are some of my favorite ways to spark and maintain hope in hard times.

Control what you can

While you should allow yourself to experience a certain amount of distress and mourning, step away from the urge to give up entirely. When crises in the world at large feel out of your control, thinking about the various components of your life — and setting small, specific goals to improve them — can help reduce feelings of helplessness.

“I remember the values, like kindness and compassion, that form the North Star I try to navigate my life by, and keep in touch with their importance through the turmoil and uncertainty and anxiety of life right now,” said Sharon Salzberg, a mindfulness teacher and the author of “Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World.”

“Doing this gives my life a cohesive path that feels like it is onward leading,” she said.

Swap microaggressions for 'micro-progressions'

If it feels overwhelming to think about how to take steps forward right now, try noticing small opportunities in what Cory Newman, director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “micro-progressions.”

“Contrary to microaggressions, which are small but hurtful and accumulative comments or actions that show insensitivity toward persons who are not in the ‘white privilege camp,’ micro-progressions are small actions that communicate respect,” Dr. Newman said.

While these deliberate behaviors don’t undo inequalities, they are steps in the direction of beginning emotional reparations.

“Micro-progressions are best delivered without any announcement, as if they are not special, but just normal,” Dr. Newman said. “An example would be resisting an urge to comment in a meeting while a person of color who has not yet finished speaking continues to have the floor.”

Work on your mental agility

Remember that a key facet of hope is creatively problem-solving when obstacles arise. Plan ways to move forward rather than shutting down when stressors come up. Similar to athletes who anticipate “hitting a wall,” rehearse pushing past fatigue. If you strategize before you’re drained, you can keep going.

Of course, shifting from feeling as if there are no options to actively brainstorming and executing ideas takes practice. It can be tough to get past all-or-nothing thinking. In cognitive psychology, there’s a bias known as functional fixedness, where people become locked into seeing only one use for common objects, even when that’s not the case. One example I use with clients is peanut butter: While it’s a spread for a sandwich, it can also be used to remove gum from your hair. In the same way, thinking resourcefully may not come easily, but if you let yourself think out of the box, you may find surprising solutions.

So take a moment to anticipate thoughts or urges that haunt you, like, “I can’t,” or notice when you’re itching to give something up, then imagine how you might shift your inner soundtrack, perhaps by seeing these thoughts as visitors you don’t have to take too seriously. You can also list thoughts that hijack you, each on its own index card, then shuffle through them casually (e.g. “Why bother?”) as you continue to sit with your emotions and move toward pursuing meaningful actions.

Consider what is still true for you

In the midst of so much pain, it’s possible to consciously notice what hasn’t been broken by all the disruption and change. Ms. Salzberg practices and prescribes reflecting on the question, “What’s still true?”

“If you can find something intact, whole, unbroken, it will give you hope,” she said. “It might be the life reflected in a child’s smile or a puppy’s antics. It might be nature; it might be fundamental beliefs in things like the power of love.”

One thing that never changes is that it’s impossible to predict the future. Instead of expecting that everything will go terribly, shift into a more open state of mind. Curiosity helps interrupt despair, Dr. Newman said.

Added Mr. Manson: “Few of the challenges we face today are historically unique and most of the long-term trends show that the world is continuing to get better.”

Build a hope kit

Gathering uplifting photos, music, mementos and a list of practices that inspire you can help you access the motivation to keep going when you need a boost. While this may seem superficial, one study showed that creating a hope collection significantly increased hope in patients with terminal cancer.

“Go to the park, remove your shoes, and feel the grass,” advised Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Over the course of the pandemic, Mr. Ruiz has provided funerals and burials for many undocumented individuals, at no cost to their families. To bolster his hope, he similarly anchors himself with nature.

Creating hope takes willingness and ongoing effort, like an uphill climb, yet ultimately leads to enjoying an improved perspective — not to mention awe-inspiring views.


Jenny Taitz
The New York Times

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