One of the worst parts about depression — and there are certainly many — is that it robs you of hope. Hope that you’ll actually feel better. Hope that the darkness will lift. Hope that the emptiness will fill up and you’ll feel motivated and excited. Hope that it won’t be like this forever. Hope that you’ll get through it.
“I’ve been struggling with depression for almost 35 years,” said Douglas Cootey, who pens the award-winning blog A Splintered Mind. “In that time, I have often felt hopeless, usually during times of suicidal ideation…Depression has a way of warping our outlook so that we only notice the bleakest parts of the world.”
The darkness stops feeling like a lens that distorts your reality, and starts to become your reality, said John A. Lundin, Psy.D, a psychologist who specializes in treating depression and anxiety in adults, teens and children in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.
“Depression often robs you of the memory of joy or happiness, so it becomes difficult to draw on happy memories to give one hope for the future,” Lundin said. Depression even makes hope seem foolish, like an illusion, he said.
Many people with depression aren’t able to articulate that they feel hopeless. Because doing so requires putting “words to an experience that just feels as real and encompassing as the air they breathe.” Saying you feel hopeless, Lundin said, can actually be a positive step. “[I]t holds the implication that hope is something that is possible.”
“Depression can be overwhelming,” said Cootey, also author of Saying No to Suicide: Coping Strategies for People Dealing with Suicidism and for the Loved Ones Who Support Them. “All those negative emotions are suffocating. This makes it difficult to believe that things will get better.”
Most of Rebecca Rabe’s clients say they’ve lost hope because they feel alone. They feel like no one understands what they’re going through. They feel like they can’t talk to anyone.
Loss of hope also might represent a loss of belief that you matter or that you can be loved, Lundin said. (This is something he works on with clients, helping them understand why they don’t feel adequate or lovable.)
What can you do when hope feels unfamiliar or impossible? What can you do when you’re in the middle of the storm?
Cootey stressed the importance of using a wide variety of coping strategies. “When I use my coping strategies to overcome depression, the next day isn’t a prison of more of the same. It’s a brand new day free of the sadness.”
Colleen King, LMFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in mood disorders and also has bipolar disorder, stressed the importance of having a treatment team and support system. This might include a therapist, doctor and several friends and family. Ask them to help you remember the times when you’ve felt better, she said. Ask them to “encourage you to be in the moment when you do experience temporary joy, even if it’s for a few minutes.”
Both King and Lundin suggested participating in activities that feel nourishing to your soul, activities that you love to do when you’re not depressed. Do them even if you don’t feel like it, King said. “You will most likely alter your mood at least a little bit, and [the activity] may be a welcome distraction from depression.” Plus, it helps to “arouse glimmers of hope that you can feel whole and healthy, again.”
It often feels like depression will last forever, King said. Which is why she also suggested placing prompts at home and work to remind yourself “that you are having a depressive episode and that it’s not a permanent state of being.”
Don’t underestimate the power of small steps. Rabe, LMFT, who specializes in treating children, teens and young adults with depression, anxiety and trauma, shared this example: She worked with a woman who was struggling with depression and complained about “not being able to do anything.”
They worked on tracking small but significant accomplishments and setting small goals. “For example, she would strive to check 10 things off her list. Sometimes just getting to therapy got her these 10 checks.” After all, getting to therapy is anything but trivial. It involves getting up, showering, getting dressed, driving to the office, making the appointment on time, talking in session and driving home, among other tasks. Her client also started reaching out to supportive loved ones (instead of isolating herself); taking walks; and writing in her journal—all of which has helped to diminish her depression and create a more positive outlook.
“I’ve been through the worst my mind can throw at me. I’ve felt the pain of suicidal depression,” Cootey said. “I’ve wished and even planned for my own death, yet I learned an important truth: Depression lies to us.” This is another reason it’s helpful to surround yourself with support: These individuals can help you see through the lies, he said.
“You do have worth. You will overcome this. You won’t be sad forever.”
There is always hope for someone struggling with depression, Rabe said. “People are resilient human beings, and they can do so much more than they think they’re capable of.”
Also, remember that “how hopeless you feel does not correlate to whether you can feel better,” Lundin said. Depression is an illness that extinguishes hope. It’s the nature of the disorder.
Thankfully, therapy and medication can help. So can participating in support groups. “Some depression requires a short treatment to work, and other takes a long time. But I have never met a patient who didn’t see significant progress if they stuck with it.”
If your therapist or doctor doesn’t seem to be helping, seek out new providers, King said. “Having a trusting and caring treatment team greatly assists with creating confidence and hope for the future.”
For people who don’t respond to therapy and medication, other treatments are available, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), Lundin said.
With good treatment, effective and varied coping strategies and compassionate support, you can feel better. The heaviness gets lighter. The world becomes brighter.
So no matter how hopeless you feel right now, please don’t throw away your shot. Hope and relief are not some foolish illusion. They are real. They are possible.