We all encounter difficult situations in life—losing a loved one, losing a job, going through a breakup. Most of the time, we are able to understand that even when we experience challenges, things will get better. But sometimes, we may feel like we’ll never feel better, that we are powerless, or our situation will never improve. That is hopelessness.
If you are feeling hopeless, it’s important to understand what’s behind these feelings and how to address them.
How to Recognize Hopelessness
If you are concerned that you or someone you know is feeling powerless, helpless, or a lack of optimism about the future, there are some warning signs to watch out for:
People who feel hopeless may say things like:
- “My situation will never get better.”
- “I have no future.”
- “No one can help me.”
- “I feel like giving up.”
- “It is too late now.”
- “I will never be happy again.”
Hopelessness can lead to behavior such as:
- Overgeneralizing or reinforcing negative feelings or experiences. For example, if they fail a test at school they think of themselves as a failure.
- Ignoring positive feelings or experiences that are contrary to a hopeless point of view. Take the example of failing a test: even if they are excelling at a different subject, they may downplay their successes and continue to believe they are a failure overall.
- Catastrophizing or imagining the worst case scenario. For example, imagining that failing a test means they will fail out of school entirely.
- Losing interest in activities or events that once brought them joy.
- Feeling isolated or withdrawing from friends and family.
- Blaming themselves for their hopelessness or believing the challenges they are experiencing are their own fault.
What Can Trigger Feelings of Hopelessness?
Experiencing a significant loss, disruption to everyday life, or periods of instability can lead to feelings of hopelessness. These kinds of experiences tend to threaten the ability to meet basic material needs like food or housing, or basic emotional needs like maintaining our friendships or our sense of safety. These experiences can include but are not limited to:
- Losing a loved one
- Experiencing financial hardship poverty, housing instability, or other financial struggles
- Losing a job, being demoted, or being denied a job opportunity
- Failing a class or consistently struggling in school
- Feeling isolated from friends and family
- Having difficulty connecting emotionally with others, or experiencing rejection repeatedly
- Living with chronic illness or chronic pain
- “Receiving a medical diagnosis for a terminal or degenerative illness
It’s common for someone dealing with loss or instability to feel sad, lonely, or like a failure, and to not have the emotional energy or the tools to improve their situation. If someone is dealing with more than one of these situations at the same time, or repeatedly struggles with the same experience, feelings of hopelessness may be reinforced because it may be difficult to believe that things can get better. This can lead to feelings of “not being good enough” or believing that “there’s no point in trying.”
Mental Health Conditions Related to Hopelessness
While hopelessness is a common reaction to a disruptive or difficult event, sometimes feeling hopeless has no apparent cause. This may be a sign of a larger mental health issue. Hopelessness is a symptom of many mental health conditions, including:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Substance misuse
- Personality disorders
- Developmental disorders
- Grief and complex grief
Left unaddressed, hopelessness can create a vicious cycle with mental health issues. Feeling hopeless can make some mental health issues worse, and in turn, underlying mental health issues can cause deeper feelings of hopelessness, which can impact a person’s ability to function day to day. At its most extreme, hopelessness can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors. That’s why it’s important to find ways to deal with hopelessness.
How to Deal with Hopelessness
While we can’t always control the circumstances or conditions that lead us to feel hopeless, we can learn to shift our mindset and find healthier ways of dealing with the situations and feelings that contribute to feelings of hopelessness.
When someone is feeling hopeless, they may reach for coping mechanisms that are unhealthy because they make the person feel something—for example, misusing substances, having unsafe sex, or engaging in self-injury. While they may feel better in the moment, over time these coping mechanisms will not help address the underlying issues. So it’s important for people to learn and practice coping mechanisms that can help them unpack and deal with hopelessness in a healthy way. These strategies include:
- Practicing positive ways of coping including exercising, exploring creative outlets, and practicing gratitude.
- Reframing hopeless thoughts and finding the positive in life.
- Leaning on a support system. Ask for help from friends, family, and mental health professionals.