How hope can help manage your stress

Hope and the absence of hope have been of interest to psychologists and health providers for some time. In numerous international studies researchers seem to have concluded that an absence of hope has an impact on wellbeing that appears to be as destructive as anxiety and stress. Indeed, a recent report from the Mayo Clinic in the US found a correlation between hopeful thinking and stress management. Researchers found that hopeful individuals are better able to cope with stressful situations, reducing the many and varied harmful effects of stress on the body.

Overall, the report found that hopeful people experience better general health, including a longer lifespan and lower rates of cardiovascular disease, as well as greater achievement, increased determination and lower rates of depression. Hopeful thinking, they have found, has also been associated with higher pain tolerance and lower levels of depression in the chronically ill. Hope, then, acts as a protective mechanism while hopelessness can lead to physical, psychosocial and spiritual deficits.


What is hope?

As a concept, hope does not have a good reputation. It is often thought of as a kind of intangible wishfulness; something that is fleeting, passive and even a little desperate. For some, hope smacks of blind optimism, a state of unreality in which all signs to the contrary are ignored in favour of a feverishly wanted outcome, where self-responsibility and action are forfeited for a miracle.

Hope has often been imagined as an unrealistic longing without action, without commitment and without concrete meaning. Yet a variety of studies by contemporary psychologists have concluded that hope is more than an escape for dreamers and much more than a feeling. It is, instead, a way of thinking and behaving; it requires us to have the ability, not just the desire, to exert influence on our lives in order to change our world.

Hope, therefore, is much more concrete than it is fanciful, linked cognitively to such proactive practices as goal setting and planning. Well away from previous misconceptions about the meaning and practice of hope, it does not actually stop at identifying a desire but continues through to the steps necessary to achieve it. “If you feel you know how to get what you want out of life, and you have the desire to make that happen, then you have hope,” explains Jennifer Cheavens, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

Cheavens has done a great deal of research into hope and believes it is very different from optimism, though they are often used interchangeably. Optimism, believes Cheavens and others who have conducted research into hope, is a generalised passive expectancy that good things will happen. Hope, as we will see, is the next step in the process, triggering action and achievement.

There are many definitions of hope, but most include the idea that proactive behaviour is crucial, as is a firm, clear idea of the reality of one’s circumstances. In his book Anatomy of Hope, oncologist and author Jerome Groopman talks about “an authentic biology of hope” and suggests that belief and expectation are key elements of having hope. He reiterates, “Hope, unlike optimism, is rooted in unalloyed reality … [and that] true hope has no room for delusion.”

While his book focuses primarily on the way individuals cope with illness, the message is applicable to a variety of situations. Hope enables us to act; it enables us to acknowledge and dissect a situation so strategies can be found and applied in pursuit of an acceptable solution or resolution of a crisis. Hope, Groopman believes, does not falter but pushes forward steadily with determination and steadfast commitment.

Significantly, hope is also flexible. It allows change to occur as each step toward a decided goal is taken. As events unfold, the hopeful adjust their strategies to accommodate the changes that inevitably occur, perhaps stepping up their plans or choosing a different path if need be. Because of this flexibility, hope is not a static concept. It changes to accommodate changing circumstances and changing realities. As a situation develops, hope alters, adjusting, shifting, transforming. This ability of hope to manage change is not only crucial to our ability to meet a crisis head-on, it is also crucial to our very survival.

If we believe the science and accept that hope triggers action, the key question for researchers becomes: why do some of us have hope and some of us not? Why do some of us innately know how to put all our energy toward a problem, analysing, deciding and acting in our own best interests, while others collapse, flailing for direction, struggling to identify the true nature of the crisis and making it impossible to begin to find a solution?

One of the ways in which researchers have sought to answer this question has been to look at how hope is generated. Many have looked toward childhood for the moments when hope is offered as a life skill. As a result, researchers have found that we acquire hope as a part of the process of learning the language of our people and our religion. It is part of our socialisation and develops within our family culture as well as that of the greater community. We are taught hope strategies by those around us. We experience hope in action by watching adults in our sphere manage their own issues.

As with many aspects of our psychological development, the influence of family and the way its members demonstrate and talk about ways of coping will influence your personal levels of hope. Strategies that families use might be religion-based if a family is very spiritual or evidence-based if the adults favour more concrete measures but they each have the capacity to influence just how much hope you have to draw on in difficult times.

Happily, like many skills, hope can be learned or boosted, enabling us to move forward with control and confidence if we did not have the opportunity to develop sound skills as young people.


Learning hope

Because hope is learned from family and social structures, missing out on forming strong hope skills as a child doesn’t mean you can never become hopeful. Learning is all in the mind and hope is all about self-belief, planning and action. One of the ways of learning to be hopeful is through hope therapy. This is a relatively new strategy that takes some of its cues from the more familiar cognitive behaviour therapy strategies that have been popular for many years.

One of those who have explored hope therapy is Cheavens. She and her colleagues have conducted a number of studies on this type of therapy as a way of providing the hopeless or depressed with ways to help themselves. “Hope therapy,” she explains, “seeks to build on the strengths people have or teach them how to develop those strengths. We focus not on what is wrong, but on ways to help people live up to their potential.”

Cheavens’ studies on the effectiveness of hope therapy were based on evidence that suggests hopeful people have better moods, better relationships and are more successful generally, while those without hope experience fewer successes and have a higher risk for depression and physical illness. By participating in hope therapy, participants should be able to tap into the energy required to keep going in the face of difficulties and build on the self-belief that keeps us alert and active.

So how does hope therapy work? Essentially, hope therapy is about learning to set goals as well as put in place the steps required to reach that goal. As with many programs that deal with goal setting, it’s important that participants set realistic and meaningful goals. “People have a hard time setting goals,” explains Cheavens. “They are too big or not well-placed in terms of where they are.”

Too many of us fail when we set goals because we are not specific enough in identifying what we want or we set goals that we don’t have an emotional attachment to. Emotional attachment helps to create motivation and, without this, many of us won’t even start on the journey let alone maintain it.

Once a good goal is set, the next step is to work out what needs to be done to get to where you want to be. Again, you need to be realistic to be successful, so setting small, achievable milestones is key. We must also learn to be flexible. There are many ways to achieve a goal, so if one path doesn’t seem to be getting you where you want to go, another path may need to be explored.

The final step in hope therapy is to build self-belief. Without it, we may not even try to begin the journey we’ve mapped out. One of the ways to do this is through positive self-talk. “Remind yourself of past successes,” suggests Cheavens. “Tell yourself why it’s important to you to keep moving forward on this and remind yourself of the skills you have.” As mentioned, setting small milestones is an important way to build self-belief. Being able to tick off each small step as you take it will provide energy and confidence.

Along with positive self-talk, it’s recommended that you surround yourself with people who will help and not hinder your journey. Family, friends, a mentor, anyone who will keep you positive will boost your levels of hope and, with that, success.


Shattered dreams

While hope is a powerful tool it cannot guarantee the desired outcome. Instead, we can suffer from what cancer awareness advocate Elizabeth J Clark, calls “broken” hope. “When hopes are not realised, ‘broken hope’ may occur,” she says.

Broken hope or a loss of hope is dire. Hopelessness means inaction and inaction in the face of a threat can lead to depression and a loss of self-esteem. Maintaining hope is not always easy. Crisis and the unexpected can throw us off-balance in ways that shake us to the core, leaving us blind, deaf and dumb. If instinct does not kick in, it can seem almost impossible to look to hope for a way through.

While broken hope, suggests Clark, can cause us to falter and make us vulnerable to self-doubt and hopelessness, it can be managed. “Broken hope requires an adjustment of thinking if you are to regain a balance of hope after a setback or major disappointment.” Part of this rebalancing of hope is the acceptance of bad news or disappointment so that new, more realistic goals can be assimilated into the hoping process. This is part of the flexibility that is intrinsic to hope. We may need to rethink our goals, shift our plan of action or ask for help.

While hope is not perfect and cannot perform miracles for the hopeful, it is a powerful way of dealing with crisis in our lives. Learning hope is about taking on and applying practical skills balanced with self-belief and positivity. Finding your hope is about being active and honest about your situation and the solutions that may available to manage it. Importantly, while self is important in having hope, we must not forget to ask for help and advice from those with more knowledge, to give ourselves the best chance of finding peace and happiness.

Nikki Williamson is a freelance writer and teacher who is always looking for ways to inspire herself and others to live a more effective life.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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