“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Natural disasters. Economic downturns. Personal financial problems. Civil unrest. Crime.
You are likely at least somewhat physically prepared for various kinds of disasters if you are a regular Ready Nutrition reader.
But are you mentally prepared?
Part of being preparedness-minded is keeping up with current events in order to be ready for anything. This means we are bombarded with bad news nearly every day. Unfortunately, this can cause our views on life to be quite bleak. Sometimes being informed makes it easy to slip into feelings of despair. And when bad times do invade our lives, it can be hard to hold on to hope. Feelings of depression and anxiety become more present than positive feelings.
While preparing for the worst is a positive thing – it is certainly better than being blindsided by a major event and not being ready to weather the storm – it is important to your well-being to find balance.
There may come a time when all the preparation in the world doesn’t matter. Bad things DO happen, even to the best of us.
But even when the worst-case scenario becomes reality, there are ways to maintain some hope. How do you push back those dark clouds of hopelessness and find the strength to dig yourself out of the problem? How do you keep going when it seems like so much is working against you?
What is hope?
Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large. As a verb, its definitions include: “expect with confidence” and “to cherish a desire with anticipation.”
Most positive emotions arise when we feel safe and satiated. Hope is the exception. It comes into play when our circumstances are dire – things are not going well or at least there’s considerable uncertainty about how things will turn out. Hope arises precisely within those moments when fear, hopelessness or despair seem just as likely. Perhaps you’ve just lost your job, your dreams for starting a new business or retiring. Hope, in times like these, is what psychologist Richard Lazarus describes as “fearing the worst but yearning for better.”
Hope literally opens us up. It removes the blinders of fear and despair and allows us to see the big picture. We become creative, unleashing our dreams for the future. This is because deep within the core of hope is the belief that things can change. No matter how awful or uncertain they are at the moment, things can turn out for the better. Possibilities exist. Belief in this better future sustains us. It keeps us from collapsing in despair. It infuses our bodies with the healing rhythms of positivity. It motivates us to tap into our signature capabilities and inventiveness to turn things around. It inspires us to build a better future.
Hopelessness can manifest in several ways.
In the book Hope in the Age of Anxiety, psychology professors Anthony Scioli and Henry Biller discuss hope from a variety of different perspectives. They say there are nine forms of hopelessness, each related to the disruption of one or more of the basic needs that comprise hope; attachment, mastery, or survival, as Therese J. Borchard explains in her review titled 9 Types of Hopelessness and How to Overcome Them:
The authors present three “pure forms” of hopelessness resulting from breakdowns in one of these three needs or “motive systems” (alienation, powerlessness, doom). There are also six “blended” forms of hopelessness which results when two needs are challenged. We can overcome hopelessness by first recognizing which of these nine types we are confronting. For each form of hopelessness, they present a mind-body-spirit treatment cocktail, involving a restructuring of thoughts, accessing the right kind of hope-sustaining relationship, and specific spiritual practices. Armed with these prescriptions we can summon the light back into our lives.
The 9 types of hopelessness listed in the book follow, along with some highlights from Borchard’s ideas for overcoming them.
1. Alienation: Feeling isolated and cut off from society and unworthy of care and support, which can cause even more withdrawal and pain
2. Forsakenness: Feeling abandoned, especially during times of greatest need
3. Uninspired: Lack of opportunities for growth and lack of positive role models
To alleviate feelings of alienation, forsakenness, and/or being uninspired, evaluate the available evidence to see if the feeling is justified or if you are overgeneralizing or engaging in all-or-nothing thinking.
4. Powerlessness: Feeling a loss of control over one’s life path and ability to achieve goals
5. Oppression: feeling subjugated by others or by society
6. Limitedness: Feeling deficient in some way, as if one does not have what it takes to make it in this world
Feelings of powerlessness, oppression, and limitedness can arise when we feel inadequate or doubt our talents and abilities. Create a list of all of your successes, and write down positive traits you have that disprove the idea that you are powerless.
7. Doom: feeling that one’s life is going to end, trapped in irreversible decline – those with a serious illness or suffering health effects of aging are particularly susceptible
8. Captivity: physical or emotional captivity enforced by an individual or group – examples would be prisoners or those who feel stuck in controlling and abusive relationships
9. Helplessness: feeling vulnerable, as if one is no longer safe in the world
To manage feelings of doom, captivity, and helplessness, examine the evidence that applies to your specific situation. Spend some time doing research and evaluate the entire body of facts that you gather. If you feel stuck in a dangerous situation, seeking outside assistance is a good idea as well.
Feelings of hopelessness are often rooted in irrational self-limiting beliefs.
Hope’s enemy is fear.
Frederickson emphasizes that choosing hope over fear is vital:
Hope and fear are not mere words or facial gestures. They’re deeply felt neurochemical stances toward our current circumstances – stances that alter our outlooks, our actions, as well as the life paths that unfold before us.
Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion that alerts us to the presence of danger. To a certain extent, we have fear to thank for our very existence – it played a critical role in keeping our ancestors alive and still serves as a survival mechanism. Fear causes two kinds of responses: biochemical (universal) and emotional (individual).
But sometimes fear turns into an irrational panic about imagined catastrophes that will likely never become reality. Chances are, you have heard of this popular acronym for fear: False Evidence Appearing Real.
When we confront a perceived threat, our bodies respond in specific ways. Physical reactions to fear include sweating, increased breathing rate, increased heart rate, peripheral blood vessel constriction, increased blood flow to muscles, and high adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert.
This physical response is also known as the “fight or flight” response, in which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away. This biochemical reaction is likely an evolutionary development and is an automatic response that is crucial to our survival.
Fear can lead to panic, which is why training yourself to recognize situations that signal actual danger is so important (I highly recommend the book The Gift of Fear). If you allow fear to take over, hope will be suffocated, and your well-being will be diminished as well.
Even if (or when) actual danger does show up on your doorstep, learning to control fear and panic can influence the outcome of the situation.
In the article Keeping Your Mind Present in the Midst of Chaos, Tess Pennington explains that in the event of an emergency, your state of mind can be more powerful than any prep you may have purchased:
It’s perfectly natural to feel some panic in a life-threatening situation, but it is your ability to overcome that panic and make good decisions that will ensure the survival of you and your family.
It’s important to understand what panic is. It is a collection of physical symptoms that are the human body’s attempt to survive. Unfortunately, the body is acting separately from the brain, and this can have some devastating physiological effects that countermand real survival.
The symptoms of panic can be debilitating and include a pounding heart, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, a choking feeling, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or gastrointestinal upset, feeling faint, and fear of losing control or of going crazy.
If you are focusing on being able to breathe, how are you going to deal with the actual threats surrounding you?
Having the right frame of mind to handle the stresses before and after a disaster is a key component to surviving the event, as Tess explains in Are You Ready Series: Using Mental Preparedness to Survive:
When fear strikes, it causes stress and anxiety, which can lead to poor decision-making, paralysis, and hopelessness. Mental preparation creates resilience and keeps a person moving on. Maintaining a positive, hopeful attitude in the wake of a disaster can literally keep a person alive; giving them the will to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When a person begins to doubt they will see tomorrow, they need to cling to hope and optimism.
For Tess’s tips on how to override your body’s natural tendency for “fight or flight”, please click here.
Living in fear can cause anxiety disorders. And, in some cases, people develop a fear OF fear. Most people tend to experience fear only during a situation that is perceived as scary or threatening, but those who suffer from anxiety disorders may become afraid that they will experience a fear response. They perceive their fear responses as negative and go out of their way to avoid those responses.
Cultivating hope is the antidote to living in fear.
In the article A Real Dose of Hope When You’re Feeling Hopeless, Margarita Tartakovsky writes:
According to Kate Allan in her uplifting book, You Can Do All Things: Drawings, Affirmations and Mindfulness to Help With Anxiety and Depression, hopelessness is simply “a misbehaving brain doing misbehaving brain stuff. It’s like a bug, a glitch.”
Allan, who has anxiety and depression, understands first-hand what it’s like to deal with a sinking sense of hope. When she feels hopeless, she instantly tells herself, “You are depressed. This is depression.”
After many years of therapy, Allan has realized that her feelings of hopelessness are a sign—not “that life is bad or that my problems are impossible,” but “a weirdly dramatic notification from my brain that I am not keeping up on my self-care, and that I need to reach out and connect with somebody.”
This is when Allan turns to her mental health checklist, and asks herself: Did I sleep well? Have I eaten? Did I connect with anyone today? “If the answers to any of these are ‘no,’ I know I then need to be more careful with myself. It’s a signal that my defenses are down, and it takes little for my mental health to spiral into severe depression.”
You, too, can use your feelings of hopelessness to check in with yourself. What do I need? Am I meeting those needs? What am I telling myself?
Here are some other tips for building hope.
Ask for help. Are you the kind of person who wants to do it all alone? If so, remember that none of us is in this alone. You may have to muster up some courage to do this, but do consider reaching out for assistance from a friend or family member, or even an organization that offers such services.
Set goals. Although there may be aspects of your situation that you cannot control, there are likely SOME things you can do to make things a bit easier for you now or in the future. Set some goals that are realistic, and be open to changing them as needed.
Shift your focus from problems to possible solutions. Often we get so focused on what’s going wrong in life that we forget about available resources – including our own skills and strengths. What CAN you do
Create a plan. Write down every possible action you can take now or in the near future to make the situation more bearable. Brainstorm with others if you can. Develop a written plan based on your goals, possible solutions, and ideas for action.
Break things down into small tasks. Once you have set goals and generated ideas for solutions and actions, break it all down into manageable tasks. Then, prioritize those tasks. Which action items need attention now, and which can wait?
Be flexible and adapt. Even the best-laid plans often don’t work out due to circumstances beyond our control. Be willing to adapt and overcome as needed.
Develop equanimity. A major concept in Stoic philosophy and in Buddhism, equanimity is mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in difficult situations. It refers to the mind being at peace even in the face of stressful and unpleasant experiences. Consider these wise words the late Dr. Maxwell Maltz wrote in Psycho-Cybernetics, “Even in regard to tragic conditions and the most adverse environment, we can usually manage to be happier by NOT adding to the misfortune our own feelings of self-pity, resentment, and our own adverse opinions.” There may be circumstances in your life that are within your control but will take time and effort to improve. And, there may be circumstances that are NOT within your control, and never will be. Either way, meeting those circumstances with equanimity can make your life a whole lot more peaceful – and happy.
Believe in yourself. If the challenges you are facing are causing you to doubt yourself, think back to times when you have overcome obstacles and achieved success – no matter how small the instances. You have what you need within you – now, tap into it.
Value persistence and hard work. Take breaks if you can, but don’t give up. simply sitting around and attempting to conjure up feelings of hope won’t work – you have to take action.
Take heart in the small victories. Every little success counts. Take things day by day if you must – even moment by moment.
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