What is Despair?
Despair is a feeling of hopelessness, to give up hope and have absolutely no expectations to move beyond this feeling. Despair is the ultimate bottom rung of the ladder with depressed individuals. Individuals with true, intense feelings of despair are very close, if not imminent to attempt suicide and at the very least they feel their life is without meaning. I have been practicing interventions with patients in medicine and psychology for over thirty years. I can say that I have encountered only a handful of patients who actually had true “despair.” Many feel as if they are in despair, however when dissecting out their life we find that they indeed do have individuals they can trust, love them, have recognizable talents and do have some short term goals. The word is frequently used, however many do not know how to ask for help or become motivated to move through their mis-labeled crisis.
Many of us have felt despair for transient periods of time. The despair we feel when we lose a loved one, financial despair not knowing where the next meal will come from and struggling with perceiving future hope. So maybe it is important to break down the word despair into acute exacerbations and chronic severe forms of despair. When I was young I encountered despair, although I could not label it with that term. My sexual abuse, not wanting to disclose, and relationship difficulties combined with not knowing how to ask for help or even implement it if I had help, led me to feelings of despair.
It is very interesting to show individuals a picture of a solitary tree in a field. It could be a dead tree on a cold grey winter day or a leafed out oak against a sky blue backdrop. If an individual is hopeful and feeling good about their life they often see the tree as beautiful, and a symbol of strength, if one is in a moment of despair it is often viewed as depressing, dying, and lonely. The self attribution theory holds true here. We attribute our current feelings onto people and objects and draw conclusions no matter how inaccurate they might be based on where we are at emotionally at that given time. Victor Frankel wrote the well known book,”Man’s Search for Meaning.” In his book he speaks of his time in a concentration camp, his blatant feelings of despair and a small sparrow that brings him hope, the symbolism for freedom and flight.
Despair is real, very real and should not be minimized. It can be devastating, however there is a way out. As long as we are inhaling oxygen, and our heart is pumping blood through our bodies there is a way out. It takes re-framing, knowing how to ask for help, and seeing your true resources (internal and external resources.) Many of us see the negative. We read about it, view it on television, want a better life, and complain we are not getting a fair deal. As gas prices sky rocket, the economy bottoms out, and relationships feel the pressure of stress one wonders how do we move past despair. It is possible to see the solo tree in the field as a symbol of strength and beauty, but first we need to be aware of our view of our self and pragmatically look and see if our despair cup actually holds water or is it an illusion of self defeating perceptions.
How does one resolve feelings of despair?
True feelings of despair are debilitating and freeze us into a state of immobilization. Many have a difficult time eating, sleeping and interacting with family and friends. Statements from friends and even therapists like, “You have so much in your life to be thankful for,” and “You will get better, it just takes time,” are many times worthless. These statements always have good intent, however when experiencing the crushing blanket of despair words just seem to become absorbed into the walls around you.
Despair must run it’s course so yes, time is important. Time alone will not resolve this issue. First and foremost one must look pragmatically at the reason the feeling occurred. Is there legitimate foundation for this overwhelming feeling? Second, recognize how you were feeling not that long ago when you were happy and what is different. This is very important in order to identify the problem at hand as well as KNOW you can and have achieved happiness in the past. Third, allow yourself to feel despair, feel sad, cry with knowledge that by allowing yourself to feel hopeless this WILL be transient. Fourth, implement an action that will slowly move you out of your current state. This could be something small, a warm bath, a walk with or without a friend without re-hashing the drama and stress in your life. Fifth, reflect back on when you were happy and what you did to instill that happiness in you and others. Most likely this had to do with some type of short term goal, something to look forward to. IMPLEMENT IT ! Put forth the effort required mentally to move from the hopeless feeling of despair to the feeling of expectations, and hope. This could be a visit to a friend, family member, a small trip, a shopping moment, or just an old funny movie. Have a goal and implement it. Remember it is very, very difficult to jump right to four or five. Despair has a tendency to have emotional tentacles that grab on frequently. You may try the above and fail. Yes, many do. It is similar to losing weight, stopping a vice, you must try many times before you succeed. That is life my friend. Driving a car, a new job, the birth of a baby, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a financial crisis can all lead to feelings of despair. You were NOT born with despair, there is no blood test for seeing what your despair levels are, so know you can kick it in the butt. See the beauty in a solitary tree, a solitary blade of grass, your child’s smile, and more importantly, (YOUR SMILE.)