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Don't Let the Ds (Depression and Despair) Get You Down

How to combat despair and hopelessness in challenging times.

Key points

  • Hopelessness has repeatedly been shown to affect overall physical and mental health and well-being.
  • Having courage in the face of difficulty is not always easy. 
  • Hopelessness and despair both stem from spiritual depletion. Addressing that is not something most people learned to do in school or at home.
Source: bricolage/shutterstock

Despair can be defined as the complete loss or absence of hope or hopelessness. Are you there yet? The sources of despair are many. It can come after a significant loss or after smaller losses that seem to pile up. It can be caused by battling situations in your life that never seem to let up. Despair and depression can be exacerbated by loneliness, which affects 20 percent of Americans and has been rising. Since the pandemic began, an online survey by Mental Health America showed that over 80 percent of people scored with moderate to severe symptoms of depression. In September 2020, a record 37 percent reported thoughts of suicide more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks.

Have you lost hope? If you've struggled with binge eating or emotional eating for some time, you may find that the stresses and isolation of the quarantine have worsened your symptoms. Studies show a two-fold increase in adolescents seeking treatment for eating disorders. Quarantine precautions have affected food availability and made it difficult for people with binge eating, compulsive overeating, or emotional eating to access their usual coping mechanisms. You may have also have been exposed to weight stigma through social media that are uniquely harmful to those with eating disorders. Along with this, changes in social support and routine and experiences of trauma during the quarantine and around social unrest may be particularly difficult for those with eating disorders to manage.

Or maybe you’ve been on the diet treadmill most of your life and you feel hopeless that your food and body image issues will ever change to your satisfaction. This is a train of thought that can lead you to depression and can negatively affect your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

In our fat-phobic, diet-obsessed culture, we have come to confuse being thin with being happy. We have been conditioned to believe that we have to look a certain way in order to deserve the life we want. We have been taught by the media, our families, and society that if we are in a bigger body—or if we are different in any way from what society deems acceptable (young, thin, straight, of a certain race or religion or political affiliation)—that we cannot have what others have and, most importantly, what we desperately want.

Hopelessness has repeatedly been shown to affect overall physical and mental health and well-being. If you experience high levels of hopelessness or despair in your life, you are more likely to develop high blood pressure or heart disease, or to have a stroke. This can make you feel trapped or overwhelmed. Hopelessness and despair can also make you feel as if it's useless to work on making peace with food and your body and you may find yourself falling back into old familiar eating and thought patterns because of it.

Having courage in the face of difficulty is not always easy. According to author and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, if you have purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of life’s difficulties, your life will have meaning which can decrease hopelessness and despair. You can find meaning in many aspects of your life and also in suffering. The way in which you address suffering in your life is what gives life its meaning, according to Frankl.

If your life feels out of control or overwhelmingly stressful or if you feel backed into a corner with nowhere to go, I would urge you to remember that you still have the freedom to choose how you respond to the situation you find yourself in. As you choose how you respond, as you dig for courage to heal, and as you care about others and perform meaningful work, you can reduce hopelessness by nourishing your spirit.

Hopelessness and despair both stem from spiritual depletion. Just as toxic childhood experiences are associated with negative changes in your brain, spirituality and religion are associated with positive changes in your brain, which can reduce your risk for depression and also improve your recovery from depression. If you experience a lot of body shame, you may be surprised to know that nourishing your spirit can reduce disordered eating behaviors and decrease body shame.

Being out of touch with or disconnected from your spirit can lead to spiritual depletion. Toxic relationships, betrayals of trust, and chronic illness in yourself or a loved one are other experiences that can cause your spirit to be depleted. Being spiritually run-down can sneak up on you, and you may not even recognize the signs. Spiritual emptiness is a sickness that has signs and symptoms like any physical illness. It’s important that you recognize the signs so you can address the causes of spiritual depletion with as much compassion and care as you would any other illness.

Below is an exercise to determine whether you may be experiencing spiritual depletion and what the cause of that depletion may be.


From the list of spiritual depletion signs below, identify those you currently experience.

  1. Melancholy or despair
  2. Feeling tired for no reason
  3. A lack of joy
  4. Inability to make decisions
  5. Chronic negativity
  6. Addiction or abuse of food or other substances
  7. Feeling alone and isolated
  8. Trouble with motivation
  9. Restlessness
  10. Feeling like nothing matters


Look at the list below and identify possible causes of your despair/spiritual depletion:

  1. Chronic stress
  2. Grief or loss
  3. Chronic illness
  4. Sudden changes in life
  5. Isolation or lack of social support
  6. Other

Nourishing your spirit is not something you learned to do in school or at home, but it should be part of your daily rituals and not just an intellectual pursuit. For example, you can read a book about meditation, but that won’t give you the changes in your brain that meditating will.

If you find yourself feeling hopeless or in despair, you might think back over the situations or circumstances that have made you feel hopeless or in despair. Are these situations ones you can let go of? If not, you may consider:

  • Seeking professional counseling
  • Seeking out a minister or other counselor to talk to
  • Journaling about what you are feeling
  • Making a pros-and-cons list for letting go of past hurts, losses, or other causes of despair and spiritual depletion
  • Increasing self-care. Find activities you can do that help replenish your spiritually—get a pedicure, take a bubble bath, take a walk in nature, listen to music, or spend time with friends.
  • Using complementary alternative therapies like acupuncture, supplements, mindfulness, massage, yoga, etc.

Nourishing your spirit is good preventive medicine for stress resilience, but it is more than just a way to help you cope with stress. Nourishing your spirit enables you to stay more present to whatever is happening in your life, which will help you make better decisions and help with emotional regulation. Nourishing your spirit is a way to replenish what the world takes out of you, a way to keep your “cup full,” so you can not only give to others in your life, but most importantly, give to yourself. Hopelessness and despair can be helped and daily small actions are the key. If you do something every day, even if only for a short time, you will build a strong foundation to face life’s challenges, rather than using sandbags in the middle of a flood of stress to shore up your depleted resources. Try out different things, practice them and continue to use them—even before you get depleted. Keeping your spirit nourished is the best way to avoid the pain of falling into hopelessness and despair.


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Whipple, M. O., T. T. Lewis, K. Suggon-Tyrell, K. A. Matthews, E. Barinas-Mitchell, L. H. Powell, and S. A. Everson-Rose. 2009. “Hopelessness, Depressive Symptoms and Carotid Atherosclerosis in Women: The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation Boisvert, J. A., and W. A. Harrell. 2013. “The Impact of Spirituality on Eating Disorder Symptomatology in Ethnically Diverse Canadian Women.” International Journal of Social Psychiatry 59 (8): 729–38.…