You Don’t Have to Feel Hopeful

A therapist’s advice for how to stop spiraling in times of crisis

In a news cycle that seems to get darker by the day, hope — for a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine, a smoothly run election, a functioning democracy, a widespread embrace of science — can seem naive at best, downright foolish at worst. Bracing for the worst can feel like the safest way to stop ourselves from adding crushing disappointment to an already sky-high pile of anxiety and grief.

A sense of hopelessness during a crisis, let alone multiple ongoing crises, is normal. It’s something I see often in my therapy patients — especially now, as the election looms and the country feels like it’s crumbling around us. But hopelessness is also dangerously contagious.

When despair spreads like a virus, it can be difficult for anyone to cling to their own agency through challenging times, contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Nothing gets better because no one believes it will. Fear that borders on fatalism can profoundly change the way we think and act. And allowing ourselves to surrender to it isn’t just ineffective. It’s selfish.

So how do we move past this kind of hopeless fear and begin to feel like we actually have control over our future?

Don’t shut down and don’t attack

I often remind my clients that anxiety is fear at work. And when you’re afraid, you develop a kind of tunnel vision. You search out evidence that confirms your worst fears, and you block out information that doesn’t.

This can make you increasingly paranoid and reactive, or it can leave you paralyzed with hopelessness. You attack, or you shut down. Fight or flight.

These aren’t particularly creative responses to complex problems. But they are our evolutionary heritage, and it can be difficult to rise above these automatic reactions.

The good news is that observing how these behaviors manifest in your life can help you interrupt them. When you start to recognize how you shut down or attack, you open yourself up to choosing a more mature, thoughtful response to the challenges that really scare you.

Shutting down can look like:

  • Not educating yourself about important issues.
  • Lying about your beliefs so you don’t upset people.
  • Refusing to discuss topics that make you anxious.
  • Relying on others to solve problems that concern you.
  • Abandoning your responsibility to help solve problems.

We all have moments where we feel overwhelmed and need to take a break from reading the news or engaging with stressful issues. Temporarily disengaging is often an essential part of staying mentally healthy; deleting Twitter from your phone or instituting a news-free Saturday can bring some much-needed relief.

But often, pulling away from a source of stress can become a fixed response — and that’s when it becomes a problem. Shutting down doesn’t help us practice managing our anxiety while in conversation with others. It doesn’t help us think rationally as we educate ourselves about important issues.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who respond to anxiety by becoming confrontational, or attacking people whose behaviors or beliefs are at odds with their own.

Attacking can look like:

  • Provoking someone to get a reaction.
  • Labeling one person as the problem.
  • Lecturing without hearing another person’s thinking.
  • Trying to force others to act or behave better.
  • Responding in a crude or reactive manner.

Attacking might make you feel powerful in the moment. But this, too, often fosters a sense of powerlessness once it becomes clear that no amount of lecturing, begging, or shaming will make other people behave the way you want them to. Aunt Shirley’s not going to drop her conspiracy theories simply because you scolded her on Facebook.

These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. Many people may find that when they are afraid, they vacillate between attacking and shutting down. They try to bully others into action or maturity, and when this proves frustrating, they give up and distance themselves from whatever they fear, whether that’s a specific person’s beliefs or a news story or an event in their own life. They stay silent for a time, only to explode when they can no longer keep their thinking to themselves. It’s an exhausting cycle, one that leads to burnout, fatalism, or more serious mental health problems.

Stay connected to hard problems

There is a third way to respond to the crises we face, one that doesn’t require you to lie down in defeat or attempt to coerce others. If a person can stay connected to hard problems by focusing on themselves, then they often find that the fear is manageable.

Staying connected can look like:

  • Seeking out the facts.
  • Focusing on communicating rather than convincing.
  • Getting curious about potential solutions.
  • Breaking down big problems into manageable steps.
  • Sitting with the discomfort that problems are complex.

Staying connected is all about seeking out information. This means examining facts that both confirm and challenge your views. And as you begin to gather information, you can ask yourself: “How would I like to begin to respond to this challenge?” Then you start with the simplest steps and keep moving forward.

Rethink the role of hope

Don’t worry about feeling hopeful. When we’re feeling anxious about the future, we tend to think we need to muster a sense of hope before we shift into problem-solving mode. In other words, we focus on fixing the emotions first.

But that’s the wrong order of operations. Problem-solving isn’t a result of hope. It’s what calms us down and instills hope in us. Engaging our frontal lobe, the part of the brain that defines goals and breaks them into manageable steps, can shift us out of anxiety and into a more thoughtful state of being. What once seemed like certain doom can start to look like a complex but manageable challenge.

So when you feel like the world is crumbling around you, don’t worry about turning yourself into a calm optimist. Instead, try picking up a small piece of the problem and learning more about it. When you begin to think about the facts, without shutting or attacking others, you begin to find a way to manage the fear and face the challenge. And paradoxically, when you begin to think about yourself instead of everyone else, you become a little less selfish and more of a resource to those around you.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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