I don’t experience the absence of hope as despair. At least not right away.
I’ve experienced the absence of hope before. It dribbles away, piece by piece as depression moves into ascendancy. Hope vanishes as you sink, inversely proportionate to how much you need it. You aren’t despairing yet, however.
Before despair moves in, there’s emptiness.
In ways, I prefer despair. At least it’s something. It’s hard to fight nothing. The heaviness of emptiness, apathy, and ennui is hard to push through. It feels like gravity is more severe; holding your head up is too much work and down is the only place you want to be.
Literally. Depression has an affection for prone.
It’s a stillness. It’s a horrible waiting game. You know what comes next. There are things you could do but the urge to inaction is a powerful one. And the more times it happens, the harder it gets to fight back? What’s the point when it’s so tidal.
You become a low-pressure system, open to whatever powerful fronts head your way. They will come; nature abhors a vacuum. What comes next a mystery. What is surging up to occupy the space has yet to be determined. Do flickers of hope spark as you start the turn back towards the top? Or does despair enter the playing field and make things oh, so much worse.
“Round and round and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows.”
Once despair shows up, you realize your thoughts were a lie. Despair is not better. You pray for the emptiness to return.
I used to think emptiness was what I was meditating to achieve. I wanted quiet in my head. No rushing thoughts, no urgent, anxiety-based pushes.
But the quiet of meditation is not the emptiness that comes before despair. With meditation, the thoughts cease but it isn’t a black hole. You’re still you. What you’ve achieved with meditation is peace. Total you-ness. The emptiness of anhedonia is different. You’re not you; you’re absent.
Mental illnesses flare. In my case, it’s most often depression. The fluctuations of your neurotransmitters are mostly out of your control. You can do some things – eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, manage stress – but even if you do everything right, you can still fall. You can still get into trouble.
For me, despair is one of the worst things. Once you reach that milestone, actions seem much harder and so much less pointy. Hopeless people will act in hopeless ways.
But although it feels like it, you’re not helpless. When things take a turn for the so much worse, it’s time work on reinforcing hope. Hope is the battery that gives you the energy to keep pushing on through the storm. And it’s one we can recharge.
How to generate hope:
1. Meditation and visualization. Remember better times. Focus on what that looks and feels like. Visualize the steps you need to take to get back there. It’s hard to do when you feel like doing nothing; when you’re sure nothing will help. Do it anyway (there is one caveat – be careful with meditation when you’re severely depressed. It can help. It can also make things worse. Be vigilant.)
2. Gratitude and compassion. A gratitude practice helps lighten and stabilize the mood. It takes you out of yourself and puts you back into the world. It helps with perspective. It helps you see beyond the narrow focus emptiness and despair thrusts upon you. Be compassionate. Not just towards other people but towards yourself. Treat yourself like you’re someone you love.
3. Do what you can, even if it’s only small things. Every step is important. Movement is what’s required. The goal is to get ourselves out of the quicksand. You can’t do that if you’re standing still. Don’t judge your efforts. Doing only one thing is infinitely better than doing nothing. Celebrate the accomplishment. Keep the momentum going.
4. Do something for someone else. Kindness is always a good thing but, in this instance, it serves a dual purpose. Helping others not only helps you get out of yourself, it helps you neurochemically. Being kind releases serotonin. In addition to having an antidepressant effect, it calms stress levels. It can even help reduce perceptions of pain. This is a win. Depression shows up in the body too.
5. Turn to your faith. If you have a religious practice, now’s the time to lean on it. This advice doesn’t work for atheists though I suspect turning to philosophy or positive psychology could have a similar effect.
6. Cut down on news and social media. That seems to be the prescription for a great many ills. Somehow, I suspect the current incarnation of social media is not going to be viewed favourably by historians. Regardless, withdrawing for a period (or forever) has been shown to have a significant and positive effect on mood and feelings of hopelessness. We aren’t wired to deal with the amount of informational input we get from the online world.
7. Spend time in nature. For many, being in nature is soothing and inspiring. It often leaves people feeling more content and at ease. I always feel better when I sit on the beach.