Despair is a common experience we all share. We feel it during difficult times in our lives. We sometimes despair about our work, our relationships, our financial situation, our love life (or lack of it), and of course we despair over world events each time we tune into the media. Typically, this feeling dissipates and quietens down until the next time, but sometimes it actually gets deeper, takes control of us, and forms a clinical condition where we constantly feel hopeless, pessimistic and powerless. Ultimately, we feel out of control.
We cannot control the government, the weather, other people’s opinions, our spouse, but we can take small steps so these feelings of despair don’t overwhelm us. This is generally true in counselling, where my clients are not always able to change the circumstances of their lives, but when they realise they can change the way they feel and think, it is significantly more empowering than continuing to think that if they could just control circumstances they’d feel better. We can’t un-do the past, but we can control how we deal with it in the now; we can’t control how others behave, but we can control how we react.
So how do we begin to take control when we feel despair at the world?
- An obvious way to take control is to limit our exposure to news that distresses us, whether it be the television or social media such as Facebook, learn to switch off when you start getting overwhelmed.
- Experts suggest we can instead think about how to improve things that matter closer to us, such as our home, family, community, etc. Sometimes we can become so consumed by the suffering of animals and people in other countries that we overlook what is happening within our neighborhood. What about old people who are living alone, or kids that need a steady and loving foster-home, or local animal shelters that need people to spend time with the dogs and fund raise so they have warm bedding? You might not have wealth in terms of money, but likely you have gifts and talents, such the ability to organize a bake sale, help in a neighbour’s garden, or write an email or letter of support and encouragement for someone who is going through a tough time.
- If you feel particularly powerless some days, then do something small such as cleaning your bathroom or having a turn out of your wardrobe, so you get a sense of accomplishment.
- Seek solace in other people. We can get lost in the fog that pervades our minds sometimes, and talking to a wise and trusted friend, or having a session or two with a counsellor, can help to clear that fog.
- Recognize when the best thing you can do is take care of yourself: eat, sleep, nurture yourself so you can regain some perspective.
- Be aware of signs that your emotional bank account is becoming exhausted. Those bad news stories about the world may be the final straw rather than the real cause of the problem. If you are more tearful or angry than usual, then you need to retreat and take stock so you feel less over-extended. Be honest about your priorities and where you are expecting too much of yourself.
Ultimately, we need to find ways to feel more in control and hopeful about the world, and our small place in it. A sentence that sticks in my mind from something I once read is that “people can live weeks without food, days without water, minutes without oxygen, but not a moment without hope”. And if you sometimes think the world is going crazy, you might be reassured to know that according to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, the human race is now healthier, more prosperous, and safer than ever before. The problem, he argues, is not the state of the world, it is our bias towards a negative representation of it. So, take heart, and take control of your thoughts, and the world will seem like a better place where courage and compassion can triumph over despair.
If the subject matter in this article resonates with you, then counselling might be a good option to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.