The beginning of 2021 continues to be a doozy, and many people are understandably upset and fatigued. I’ve had many conversations in the past couple of weeks that have turned to the topic of hope and despair, and how one maintains hopefulness in the face of mounting obstacles.
These are my reflections.
(And if you’d rather get this in video form – scroll to the bottom!)
The News as a Trauma Trigger
One thing that I and many other counselors have observed in the last year is how triggering global and national crisis events can be for people with histories of trauma, which is actually the majority of people. If you are feeling especially overwhelmed by the news, this is very natural. There is an element of danger, uncertainty, unpredictability, unsafe power dynamics and powerlessness, and collective gaslighting as polarized opinions may cause us to question our own reality. These are all very strong triggers for humans in general, and especially people with trauma. I hope that naming this helps to open up some space for self-compassion if your experience feels particularly intense right now.
The Function of Hopelessness
It’s also natural that when people become overwhelmed, they can quite easily fall into hopelessness. Many people I’ve spoken with have expressed a despair and frustration with what seems to be one step forward and three steps back. Hopelessness can feel like sliding into a pit, draining our energy and our motivation. It is a difficult place to be. At the same time, hopelessness has a protective function. There is a certainty to it in which we can claim that we know how things are going to go. As humans, we don’t like uncertainty and go to a lot of effort to control and predict the world around us. It can actually be easier to be in certain hopelessness than to hang out in the unknown. It can be harder to say “I don’t know how this is going to go” than to say “I know this is going to go poorly.” Pessimism protects us from being hurt and disappointed once again. Evolutionarily, preparing for the worst has helped us survive. As I say this, I am not asking anyone to be unrealistic or to discount evidence or patterns that help us to predict how things will turn out. However, for those that wish to pull out of the dark, draining nature of hopelessness, it may be important to open up to some helpful uncertainty and the truth that we cannot predict the future.
How I Maintain Hopefulness
As a human living in this world, I too have dropped into hopelessness many times and yet in this moment it is not my main experience. So I took some time to ask myself how I maintain hope, and what factors make me hopeful now as opposed to other times when I am not. None of this is meant to be a denial of what is happening in the world, or a dissociative bypass of reality, but rather a summary of what gives me a sense of groundedness and motivation to carry on amidst it all.
- Back to basics self-care: Have I slept? Have I eaten recently? Had a glass of water? Taken a shower? Gone for a walk? All these really basic things can go out the window when we’re overwhelmed or triggered, and having them not in place to begin with makes us very vulnerable to big emotional swings and feeling like we can’t deal. My reactions to world events are undeniably tied to my personal physiological state.
- Focus on my immediate environment: Going back to basics is also a great way to practice some present-moment mindfulness and tune-in to our immediate environment (micro-focus) rather than only the big world picture (macro-focus). It is healthy to oscillate between micro and macro focuses. If we are stuck in the micro we end up disconnected from the bigger picture and what is happening in the collective, but if we are stuck in the macro it can quickly become too much for our nervous systems to handle.. On the day of the insurrection at the capital last week, I was listening and watching the news quite a bit all day. But I also went for a walk with a friend, played with my cat, played some video games with my partner, and cooked a nourishing dinner. This is also about having healthy boundaries with media consumption. Listening to a trusted news podcast has a very difficult quality than endless doom scrolling.
- Allow humor: The news is upsetting, but I love a good meme. Allow the humor and the ridiculousness and the comic relief to come in. This is not about making light of serious events, but rather maintaining flexibility in our cognitive and emotional states. Can we hold the gravity of the situation while also engaging laughter and watching our emotions shift and change in each moment.
- Focus on the positive: Humans have a natural tendency to focus on the negative, the dangerous, the problematic, which is another protective evolutionary trait. It is important to make sure we are also taking in positive (dare I say ‘hopeful’?) information. On the day of the insurrection, I noticed my focus was not only on the rioters, but also on the results of the Georgia senate races, how quickly congress reconvened to confirm the electoral results, and how so many people in the media were condemning what happened. I felt able to lean in to some of these positive pieces that often don’t get as highlighted but are still very important to how things will turn out. I also feel inspired by seeing other people who are working hard to make change in the world: all the people who march and protest and organize and work tirelessly on things racial justice and climate justice and flipping elections. Their hope and energy gives me hope and energy.
- Focus on solutions: Yes, we need to be informed and educated on the problems, but we also need to be informed on the solutions. I can become very hopeless very quickly on the topic of the climate crisis, but one thing that has been helping me recently has been reading more about the Green New Deal and other solutions put forth by experts and activists. Hearing experts talk about positive, realistic, hopeful and substantial ways forward gives me more energy than if I am only seeking out information about how bad things are.
- Meaning making: In trying times, I find myself grounding into my own identity, my own role, and my own systems of meaning. How do I understand myself and my work in the world, and what systems of meaning do I have to understand what is happening around me. My spiritual practice and meditation help me to make sense of it all. Religious, ethical or philosophical beliefs and values systems can provide a supportive framework as we navigate challenge and uncertainty, and can help us find our place within it all and guide what we do next. Self-care routines sometimes can act only as a band-aid if we haven’t put effort into these bigger questions of who am I and what’s important to me and how do I understand the world. These are bigger questions, but they also provide bigger anchors for us the hold onto.
Hope as a Social Emotion
In one recent conversation, a colleague suggested the idea of hope being co-created. Hope is not something we can cultivate well alone, but something that we put out into a relationship and that the other person needs to receive and catch. In this way it is an interpersonal experience. We are social creatures and naturally turn to others for reality checks. As I noted above, seeing other hopeful people makes me more hopeful. I think hopefulness and hopelessness are contagious. Sometimes we might have the energy to lift up others with our own hope, and other times we may need support from a hopeful community to lift us out of our own despair.
Hopefulness Takes Work
Everything I’m talking about here takes work! This isn’t easy! I don’t just wake up feeling lovely and hopeful about the world. It takes work and active cultivation. All of the things mentioned above that can lay a foundation of hopefulness take a lot of effort. Hopelessness is actually the easy route. But we must ask ourselves, do we want a quick way down, or do we want to climb to the top of the mountain and see the beautiful view.
Also, having a good attitude is not a prerequisite for putting in this work. Another colleague recently reminded me that you don’t have to be excited about the things you need to do to take care of yourself. You can be grumpy AF while you go for a walk, and educate yourself on solutions, and engage with community, and do your meditation practice. You don’t have to feel good about it to get started. The feeling good will come later. I know that when I’m stressed and tired and not feeling good, that’s the moment that I want to throw in the towel and I don’t want to follow my routine or do any of those things that would be good for me. I find it very helpful to be reminded that I don’t have to have a good attitude. I can feel bad and hopeless while I also bite the bullet and put in the work that I know will carry me out of the pit and up the mountain.
As somatic counselor, I guide clients in discovering their own inner wisdom as they navigate hope, despair, self-care, resilience, and meaning making. If you would like support in this process please reach out for a free consultation.