April 7, 2020

Finding hope during tough times

When times are tough, it’s easy to feel like things are hopeless. Bad news and personal struggles can leave us feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and emotionally drained.

But no matter what’s going on in the world around us, we can continue to hope that things will get better. Of course, it will take a bit of work.

"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." – Arthur Ashe

“Hope is not wishful thinking. It is the expectation – the inner belief or knowledge – that things will get better,” said UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. “No matter how large or small the challenge, hope reminds us that things will work out.”

When we are experiencing trying times, we can experience anger, sadness, even grief. And Mirgain notes that is normal. “Being hopeful doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge how we actually feel about a situation. If you’ve received a medical diagnosis, you’re going to feel an entire range of emotions – some of which will be negative,” she said.

But adds - that’s when we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Watch a recording of Shilagh's Facebook Live presentation on being a beacon of hope for others

Mirgain stresses that rediscovering a sense of hope doesn’t happen instantly or without effort. But it does start small – small steps, one at a time, that keep us moving forward. It’s like climbing a mountain – if we focus our attention at how far away from the top we are, it will always feel out of reach. But if we focus on each step – something that is actually in our control – we can work our way up and over that mountain top.

Cultivate hope using the G.L.A.D. technique

Another strategy for cultivating hope that Mirgain recommends is called the G.L.A.D. technique, which was created by psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk Donald Altman. It is a strategy that helps move our focus from what is wrong to what is going well. When we begin to pay attention to the positive, we can find strength to keep going and quite possibly, be a source of hope for others.

“We can get the most benefit when we practice G.L.A.D. every day. And remember, even the most basic thing can be a source of meaning in our lives,” said Mirgain.

G is for Gratitude. Think of one thing that you are thankful for. It could be the umbrella that kept you dry. The kids who (finally) put their dirty clothes in the hamper. The stranger who held a door for you when your hands were full. It could even be the sunshine. No matter how small or mundane it seems there is always something in our day that can hold meaning.

L is for Learned. What is one thing that you learned today? Maybe the neighbor shared something about herself that you never knew. Maybe a friend recommended a new book to read. It could even be a new song on the radio. When we think about what we learned, it helps reminds us that each day brings new things we never expected.

A is Accomplishment. Mirgain explains that often we think accomplishments have to be some big thing. But depending on the situation it could be something as simple as getting out of bed in the morning. Or it could be going to bed at a reasonable time. Doing laundry. Thinking about the little accomplishments can help us feel more in control and remind us that we are active participants in our lives.

D is Delight. Think about one thing – again, no matter how small – that made you smile. Maybe your child said or did something funny that made you laugh. A coworker wrote an email thanking you for your help. Or it could even be a funny cat video on the internet. Try to recall a moment during the day where you felt your spirits lift a little.

These small steps may not seem like much, but they help break up the negative thought patterns we can get stuck in and re-orient our thinking. We can re-discover a sense of hope and a belief that things really will be okay. And when we do, we can help be a positive source for others by lending a helping hand or even just doing something nice – like buying coffee for the person behind us in line or leaving a bigger tip.

And while we can work on our own sense of hope, Mirgain notes that there may be times when feelings of hopelessness are a sign of something deeper – like depression. If feelings of hopelessness are joined by a loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite and/or sleep, feelings of worthlessness or more, don’t hesitate to contact your primary care physician or a behavioral health specialist.