Symptoms of Depression Series: Hopelessness

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

I am going to begin a series of posts on My Depression Connection about the individual symptoms one can experience when suffering from depression. We have all seen the lists of depression symptoms. Here I wish to delve into them one by one to talk about what it is like to experience these manifestations of depression from personal experience. A medical list simply doesn't say much about what it is like to live with these sometimes debilitating symptoms. I will be exploring the causes, what it feels like, what it looks like behaviorally to others, and also provide some strategies for coping with these individual symptoms. But I need your help. As I go through these facets of symptoms from my own experience I will be asking you questions so that you can help others as they tackle these same challenges. Sound good?

Let us begin with the symptom of "hopelessness."

What is hopelessness and what causes it?

My personal definition for hopelessness is when you feel that nothing you do will matter or help to improve your life. It can be a feeling of being trapped in a particular life situation for which you see no choices. It can be caused by having multiple losses or stressors. It is my opinion that that the feeling of hopelessness can also be caused by early childhood traumas where you were powerless over life circumstances and then as you got older that feeling of powerlessness continued despite the greater opportunities and choices you may have. Hopelessness leads to helplessness where we no longer feel capable of making decisions to grow or change.

What is your personal definition of hopelessness and what do you feel is the cause? What does hopelessness feel like?

I have had many times in my life where I felt hopeless. I have felt this during times when I was faced with great financial difficulties as when I was a teen working sometimes three jobs just to get by. And if one bad thing happened like an unexpected bill or an appliance breaking down, it was a major catastrophe. I remember struggling to work and go to college and wondering, "What am I doing this for?" I felt hopeless to wish for a better future because it seemed all I did was try to keep the status quo of survival. In the end I persevered and kept going to school and eventually I did get my degrees. I am glad I did. But there were many times I wanted to give up. I have also experienced hopelessness with regard to my depression. It would seem that I would be getting better and then another life stressor or crisis would knock me back to my knees. In those darkest of times I could not see any possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel. I felt trapped by my internal struggle. I would fight so hard just to be sent back into the pits. It seemed so unfair. Where were the efforts of my work?

The worst result of this feeling of hopelessness is inactivity. You sit and just wait for the world to end because you feel that there are no more options for you. I have been there and it is one of the most desolate feelings in the world.

What has hopelessness felt like for you?

What does hopelessness look like to the rest of the world?

As much as I have experienced this emotion myself, it is always so hard to see this in others. The conversation is punctuated by "I can't." Any suggestion of options or choices is met with negativity or resistance. There is always some reason they cannot pursue a way of working on their problems. Hopelessness is contagious. It can spread to the people who are offering to help you. It is possible to convince others that indeed, your situation is hopeless. But seldom, if ever, is that the truth of the matter. We all have choices; we just may not like the choices we presently have. I have seen hopelessness up close and personal during some of my internships working with people who had alcohol or drug addictions in addition to mental illness. I remember one man who told me he would die of his addiction. He saw no other options in his life for recovery. He had given up any hope for change. Some months after I had left the program I heard that he had died. Hopelessness in the extreme can cost you your life.

What do you think your hopelessness looks like to others? If you were a friend or loved one trying to help you during these times, how do you think it feels for them? What can one do to combat feelings of hopelessness?

  • I had a wonderful therapist when I was a young adult struggling to cope with my depression. There would be many times when I would face a situation which raised similar feelings of powerlessness as when I was a child. It was as though my learned response to going back to feeling as a child was almost comforting. My therapist would then remind me, "What year is it now?" He would tell me that what was once true of my life as a child is no longer applicable today. Maybe you are faced with a social opportunity and you feel hopeless because as a kid you were teased and bullied. You fear the same responses now. You have to remind yourself, that was then and this is now. You have much more power as an adult to handle life's circumstances.

  • Accept what is. Whatever is on your plate, say okay this is how it is right now. Some life circumstances are permanent and we have to adjust. But many life circumstances are only temporary setbacks. Try to remember times when what you worried so much about was only temporary. Some things may seem like the end of the world but in retrospect, when time has passed, you will find that these were hurdles that could be overcome.

  • Allow yourself time to vent and emote. Underneath much hopelessness is anger. Anger over unfair situations. And you are right Some of the things you are going through are terribly unfair. I feel it is better to get mad and get that emotion out instead of sinking into hopelessness. In the hopeless realm you are abdicating the responsibility for your life to fate. No matter what predicament we may find ourselves in we are always responsible for our own life, not your friends, not your family, and not your therapist. Cry, get mad, but then make that choice to accept and/or grow.

  • Learn to lean on others and gain support when you need it. It does no good to be some stoic tree. Sometimes you can't do it by yourself and you need help. This is okay! This is much better than keeping things bottled up inside and then getting angry because nobody is reading your mind that you need help. People won't know until you ask. Asking for help and support is very different than demanding others give us solutions while we make no effort to help ourselves. People are much more likely to offer support and help if they see that you are making some effort, however small, to improve your life.

How about you? What things have helped you the most when you are feeling hopeless? Please share those strategies here as they may help others who are struggling.

Remember that the opposite of hopelessness is hope. Life is inherently unfair. There will be times when you will suffer. But it is my personal belief that the last thing you should ever give up is hope. There have been times in my life when hope was all I had left. Hope is the key to resilience and survival. My hope is that you will hold onto it no matter what happens next.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."