When we experience an overwhelming loss or disruptive life change, or when we are dealing with chronic depression, it is common to feel like the situation is hopeless and will never change for the better. Hopelessness is a feeling of despair or lack of hope that life can feel better than it does. These feelings often lead to a lack of investment or interest in life—and, at its most extreme, can lead to suicidal thoughts. But with the right support and a change in mindset, hopelessness can be overcome.
Why We Need Hope
Hopelessness is most common in the wake of a significant loss or major life disruption, such as the death of a loved one, losing a job, confronting a major illness, or facing a financial crisis. It is especially common when someone is already struggling with other mental health challenges. Hopelessness may also be a sign of a broader mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety.
Hopelessness is a concerning feeling because, although we all experience loss, difficult times, or mental health challenges over the course of our lives, hope is a critical part of wellbeing. We need hope because it fosters positive feelings about situations out of our control and can help us keep going when we’re facing challenges. So if you are starting to feel hopeless, it’s important to understand what’s causing those feelings—and what you can do to reconnect with a sense of hope.
How to Deal with Hopelessness
We can’t always avoid situations that can make us feel hopeless, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or financial stress. But we can learn to control how we react to stressors. Here are some helpful ways to deal with feelings of hopelessness when you’re faced with a difficult event or situation:
Reframe Hopeless Thoughts
One common thing that happens when you feel hopeless is catastrophizing, or imagining a worst case scenario. Catastrophizing may cause you to overestimate how bad a situation is or believe that a difficult situation is permanent.
Because this mindset can reinforce feelings of hopelessness, one of the most powerful ways to deal with it is to learn to reframe hopeless thoughts. If you have trouble reframing, look at it this way:
- Accepting that while what you’ve experienced can’t be undone, the acute pain, shame, or grief that so often gives rise to hopelessness does lessen over time. Learning how to be gentle with yourself while it is intense can make a big difference.
- Understanding that, no matter how unfair or devastating this loss or change was, the future holds many more kind, soft, and happy moments than you can see right now —and it is better to be here for that future than not.
- Finding and focusing on the positives in life does not mean that you have to forget or invalidate the struggles you’ve experienced, it means that you do not have to suffer quite so acutely.
For example, let’s say you receive a rejection from the college of your choice. With a “worst case scenario” mindset, you may start to believe that you will never get into a good college and never be successful in your career. If you can open to other ways of framing it, you might allow yourself to imagine other options that also include all of the new experiences, people and opportunities ahead of you. You might, for example, end up taking a gap year and have totally new experiences as a result. It is helpful to keep in mind that there are often many routes to accomplishing your goals.
Practice Positive Coping Strategies
Hopelessness can also leave us feeling numb or empty, and it may be tempting to distract ourselves or find other ways of avoiding the feelings. It’s helpful to acknowledge that this impulse, while understandable, is not likely to help us feel better. Using unhealthy ways of coping, like drugs or alcohol, self-injury, or other risky behavior like reckless driving or unsafe sexual activity, is most likely to deepen the sense of hopelessness that we are hoping to avoid.
Instead, it is most useful to find and practice coping strategies that help you address any underlying feelings while also cultivating healthy coping strategies. Try creative ways of expressing your feelings, like journaling, drawing, singing. Move your body in ways that make you feel good. Practice self-care and positive self-talk, and practice gratitude for the things you have. Remember to show yourself compassion, even if you’re struggling to remain positive.
Lean on Your Support System
It’s natural to need support during a difficult time, but when we feel hopeless it can be hard to accept help or think that help from others will make a difference. If you’re having a hard time, try being honest with the people in your life about how you’re feeling. While hiding how we feel is understandable because we may worry about burdening others, it takes a lot of energy to hide and deprives us of support when we most need it. The people who care about us want to be there for us. Plus, if we let them support us when we need it, we can inspire them to reach out for support from us and others when they need it.
When to Seek Help for Feelings of Hopelessness
If you have just experienced a significant loss or life change, feelings of hopelessness may be both natural and temporary. It is helpful to allow yourself time to grieve, practice self-compassion and self-care, and find the support you need.
But sometimes a sense of hopelessness stays longer than is healthy, and without an easy explanation. You may still be experiencing memories, feelings, or other associations brought up by whatever triggered feelings of hopelessness in the first place, or struggling with other mental and emotional challenges. If you or someone you know is struggling with hopelessness, here are some warning signs to watch out for:
- Intense feelings of hopelessness lasts for two weeks or longer
- There is no apparent cause or trigger for the hopelessness
- Feeling fatigue, a lack of motivation, or no longer enjoying things that used to bring joy
- Cycling between feelings of hopelessness or depression and euphoria or feeling “high”
- Sudden changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, or hygiene
- Isolating or withdrawing from friends and family
- Symptoms are negatively impacting relationships, performance at work or school, or everyday life
- Feeling the urge to self-injure or harm others
- Using hopeless or defeated language like “What’s the point?” or “Life doesn’t matter.”
- Having suicidal thoughts. Even passing suicidal thoughts, such as “it would be better if I died,” should be taken seriously.
- Engaging in reckless or suicidal behavior, like increased drug use or risky sexual activity
If you notice any of these changes in yourself or a loved one, it is likely time to seek help from a trained mental health professional. Sometimes, even short-term professional support can make a really big difference.
How to Help Someone Who Feels Hopeless
If you notice these signs in a friend or a loved one, there are ways to support them and help relieve their hopelessness:
- Approach with open-hearted curiosity. Ask questions in a way that lets your friend know you care. Be open to listening to them, and respect that there may not be things they want to tell you or things you don’t need to know. While you may want to know more, prying may cause the person to withdraw, and will make sharing harder for them down the line.
- Be patient. Understand that talking about their feelings may be difficult, scary, or overwhelming for your friend. Be respectful of what they feel ready to share with you. Show them that you are a safe space for them to share their feelings at their own pace.
- Show empathy. Do not try to rationalize, debate, try to “fix” their situation, make them see the “bright side” of things, or shame them for feeling hopeless. Instead, listen to them with the intention of feeling what they feel, even if briefly, so that can better authentically understand and reflect this back to them. This validates what they’ve experienced and shows concern for their situation.
- Offer your support in ways that are respectful to your friend and manageable for you. Offer to support your friend in ways that won’t harm or exhaust you. Support can range from just being there to listen to more hands-on help, like helping them find professional support.
- Encourage them to seek professional support. There is a limit to what kinds of support friends can provide. Encourage your friend to reach out to a trained mental health professional, like a school counselor or a therapist.
- Share your own experiences. If you have ever struggled with hopelessness, sharing your experience and what brought you hope can make your friend feel less alone.
- Keep inviting them to activities. Sometimes people who feel hopeless will withdraw from friends or activities they enjoy. Inviting them to spend time with you may help them feel less isolated and give them new positive experiences to look forward to.
- Take it seriously if they mention self-injury or suicide. Do not keep this a secret, even if they ask you to. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. If you believe your friend is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.