Clinging to the Edges of Hope

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It’s been nearly a year since the world was introduced to COVID19. It’s created debilitating fear for some. For others, the isolation fostered deep despair. For everyone, the unknown gave way to an endless passing of time. Add to the pandemic a civil unrest many have never seen and others are forced to live through yet againand in crept hopelessness. What gets a person through such times? What helps us lift the weight of tragedy? From witnessing the journey of people marching for change or the tenacity of healthcare workers giving their best against the odds, it’s clear it can’t be done without hope.

“But, how do I have hope when I feel so hopeless”? Fair question. Many people seek hope in 24-hour newsfeeds, latching on to beliefs in a political system, or through the promises from loved ones that never come through. They cling to the idea that hope is a feeling that will energize them for another step forward. It’s true that hope does improve mood, generate energy, and give a sense of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, waiting for those sensations to show up at our heart’s doorstep contributes little to their creation.

Suggesting hope to someone struggling to even rise from bed is risky. If someone’s already feeling they’ve failed, asking them to attempt yet another impossible feat is often taken as cruel offering. Because hopelessness at its worst can lead to suicide, it’s important we continue seeking answers for how to help others find it. It is so crucial, in fact, there is even research being done on the matter. The Hope Research Center at Oklahoma University proposes that hope is not an emotion, but rather a type of cognition. In other words, hope is not a way we feel, it’s a way we think. Those researchers suggest hope arises from creating a pathway for moving forward. (Anyone interested in the science of hope might want to read Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life, by Chan Hellman, Ph.D., executive director of the Hope Research Center and Casey Gwinn, J.D., President of Alliance for HOPE International). In the meantime, how do we help the hopeless find their path? Allow me to offer some necessary tenets in this search discovered in times when I’ve found myself barely clinging to the edges of hope.

The power of gaining hope is in the process rather than the destination. Each step confirms the future can be better than the past.

First, no destination is reached in leaps and bounds. Most journeys are taken in steps – inch by inch. The power of gaining hope is in the process rather than the destination. Each step confirms the future can be better than the past. Reinforced is awareness that we have what it takes to make our lives better. Some people struggle to realize small steps are impactful. Perhaps we’ve used as our beacons too many icons, high-level athletes, celebrities, and powerful politicians. This leaves us believing our own tiny steps have less meaning. We’ve begun latching on to what’s sold to us by people whose successes are sustained by our votes, social media follows, and endorsements. We look to them to pull us along to their brighter future, believing that’s also the road to our progress. While true that we can find inspiration in other’s stories, carving a path for hope must be personal and authentic to us. Only then can we perceive these steps to be evidence of our own ability to make it out of the dark.

Secondly, our emotions and decisions don’t always align. There are days when we can do what needs to be done without having an emotional desire to fuel the actions. I learned this by talking with combat troops preparing to enter life “outside the wire” and wondering how (and if) they might survive. There’s a tenacity needed for difficult things. Just ask any nurse who’s been sitting with strings of patients taking their last breath without loved ones nearby. Many say that while the overwhelming emotions leave them exhausted, something inside propels them onward. Without holding their action steps hostage to a feeling, they develop a fortitude that sustains them in difficult moments. Rather than fueling energy from emotion, they gain it from intention. They share a conviction to keep going anyway.

Connection is both the fuel that keeps us going and the place we find rest along the way.

Lastly, hope is lost without a plan. That’s where the thinking comes in. Consider how we’ve held on to the day scientists developed a vaccine. Once this came to fruition, many people sighed relief. Finally, we have a way out. Our hope was found in the map, a direction including clearly defined steps. Structure gives us foundation. Foundation offers strength we need to move forward. While that foundation is built from intention and our plan, it is held together by the support we get through compassion and connection. Perhaps that’s the most important ingredient of all. Making sure no one has to travel the path alone. It’s paramount that our plan includes support from others. Connection is both the fuel that keeps us going and the place we find rest along the way. Plus, if there are unexpected twists, turns, and interruptions to our plan, that support can hold us up.

We still attach the concept of hope to a feeling as often heard in the phrase feeling hopeful, though it’s promising to know we can build hope from the bricks of intention, a plan, and connection. Even penning this piece is a destination that began with small steps. I’d started it several times and would walk away discouraged as the newsfeeds left me feeling we were all lost without a compass. Eventually, shifting my intention, I took a step toward the keyboard and then another step by beginning to type. I’d also found a glorious virtual support group for therapists that meets weekly and drenched myself in connecting with others. Each step moved me closer to this port of call where my wish is that you find encouragement in the event you, too, are clinging to the edges of hope.

If you find yourself struggling with hopelessness, please reach out for support.

National Suicide Hotline

1-800-273-8255

This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you find yourself struggling to manage challenging thoughts or moods, contact your primary care physician or seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.

Posted in Counseling, Counseling and Mental Health, Resilience | 2 Comments

6 Tips for Managing Difficult Emotions During the Holidays

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There is no shortage of information written about coping with the holiday season.  That’s because there’s no shortage of people feeling extra stress this time of year. Many people will cower in the darkness of an emotional corner before reaching out for support. In the midst of increasing emotional strain, we tend to curl up and try to endure rather than move with intention toward behaviors that provide at least some level of comfort. That’s not to say endurance is not worthy of merit. Resilience is a definite plus – one that we can build and strengthen with intention.

In the midst of a first global pandemic for our generation the stressors are magnified as options for coping have never-before-experienced limits. For the first time in collective society every single person on the planet is going through a similar stress (avoiding COVID19) at the same time. That’s why it’s as vital as ever that we give attention to how we approach this holiday season. While following all the tips on the Internet won’t guarantee stress-free experiences, there are simple ways to manage the more distressing emotions that might come up. Consider these 6 steps for managing holiday stress, whether tapping in for your own benefit or for the sake of someone you care about.

1. Eliminate untrue self-talkThe personal narrative we each create can be helpful or hurtful, depending on its content. The most damaging thought-life can convince us to isolate, confirming for us that we are better off alone than in the company of others. With the pandemic reinforcing the need to stay socially distant, the aloneness built into this year’s season, for some, could result in devastating despair that lasts well beyond the holiday calendar. Fortunately, we can change our narratives to be less polarizing if we’re aware of some common pitfalls. Here are some statements we tell ourselves that create isolation:

“No one would understand how I’m feeling”This is simply untrue. There are universal experiences that connect us as human beings. Periods of deep sorrow, loneliness, loss, depression, or anxiety are some, to name a few. While it might be true that your life includes uncaring persons, you can also find a number of people who are gifted to show compassion when you’re in need. Counselors, pastors, and chaplains feel truly called to listen. If you’ve not shared these isolating thoughts and feelings with your family or friends, try that first. You might be surprised to know they’ve been down that road themselves.

“I don’t deserve someone to care about me”This is a ‘shaming’ thought and could be a symptom of clinical depression (although even people not suffering depression are sometimes burdened with shame). It’s also untrue. Shame can isolate people. Connection shrinks shame. Battle that shaming-thought by stopping it in its tracks.

Above all, avoid negative self-talk, especially using absolute words like “never” and “always”. This type of thinking tends to reinforce a belief that our situation is hopeless and can never change. In actuality, taking even the smallest positive steps can foster hope.

2. Find a support group – Many local chapters of mental health associations sponsor support groups for people. Your local hospitals or churches might also offer the same. These days, in order to manage the exposure to COVID19, local or regional chapters of mental health associations are even offering virtual (online) group supports. It can be scary to connect with new people, though research shows group support is an effective way to cope with many life issues!

3. Do something! Starting a new hobby or lifestyle choice can shift our thoughts and build our emotional immune system. A few possibilities include:

  • Reading a new book – low on funds? It’s okay – your local library will let you borrow them for free!
  • Take walks – walking is known to relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and can clear your mind of negativity! Got a park or small forest nearby? Even better! Research shows being around nature has healing power.
  • Learn something new – Whether it’s speaking a new language, learning how to garden or play the piano, learning new things keeps us mentally fit and adds to our overall emotional wellbeing. There are even tutorials you can access through Youtube on your phone or device.

4. Commit random, intentional acts of kindness – Giving of ourselves benefits us just as much as the person we’re giving to! Even a simple gesture of kind words to someone who might be having a bad day can make a difference. Remember to be equally kind to yourself. Being intentionally kind can affirm that we have a positive purpose in this life.

5. Search for the spiritual meaningFor many, the holiday season is a time to reflect on and celebrate valued spiritual beliefs. Some studies show that connecting with one’s spiritual self can bring a sense of peace and help a person find purpose in life. There is evidence that tapping in to one’s spirituality helps to build resilience and overcome the effects of a traumatic event. If you find yourself feeling negative about connecting with spirituality because of a bad experience with religion, consider that spirituality and religion are not the same thing. While religions are particular system of belief created by entities of governing bodies, spirituality is more personal and without the dogma that often leaves people feeling guilty and shamed.

6. Gain perspective – The holiday season is temporary. Its value comes from the meaning we assign to it. For some, it’s a time of spiritual celebration. For others, the focus is on family and friends. For you, it might be a time for reflection and personal growth without getting caught in the trap of commercialized mayhem. You get to decide what the season means to you.

Most importantly, approach this holiday – and every day of the year – with an intention to mitigate psychological pain. Let’s take care of ourselves and each other.

This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you find yourself struggling to manage challenging thoughts or moods during this time of year, contact your primary care physician or seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Posted in Christmas, Counseling and Mental Health, Holiday Stress, Resilience, Self Help | Tagged | Leave a comment