Hopelessness. Feature image

The Psychological State of Hopelessness: Understanding the Depths of Despair

Hope, a powerful force that propels us forward in life, can sometimes dwindle, leaving behind a vacuum of despair. The psychological state of hopelessness is a complex and distressing experience that affects individuals on multiple levels. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of this state, its causes, manifestations, and potential coping strategies.

The psychological state of hopelessness is associated with depression and suicide. Therefore, understanding and identifying hopelessness in ourselves, clients, or friends and families may have critical implications. Like many other diseases and illnesses, early identification leads to early intervention.

Individuals arrive at this dreadful psychological state when they encounter insurmountable problems. Or at least they perceive them as such. Diana Fosha wrote, “when defensive efforts are overwhelmed, one is no longer dealing simply with signal experiences that operate largely outside of awareness: instead, the individual is flooded with anxiety, fear, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. No longer just signals, they revert to being full-fledged aversive reactions, confirming the individual’s worst fears about the consequences of feeling” (Fosha, 2000).

Key Definition:

The psychological state of hopelessness refers to a deep feeling of despair, pessimism, and the absence of hope. It is a state where individuals perceive their circumstances as being impossible to change or improve, leading to a loss of motivation and belief in a positive future.

Understanding Hopelessness

Hopelessness can be defined as a pervasive feeling of despair, helplessness, and the belief that one’s circumstances are unlikely to change for the better. It is often associated with a loss of motivation, decreased self-esteem, and a bleak outlook on life. This emotional state can significantly impact an individual’s mental well-being and overall quality of life.

Aaron Beck explains that an individuals “hopelessness leads to loss of motivation: because he expects a negative outcome from any course of action, he loses the internal stimulation to engage in any constructive activity.” Hopeless, because of the lack of motivation factor, tends to create a downward spiral. Beck describes this downward pull this way, “the continuous downward course in depression may be explained in terms of the feedback model. As a result of his negative attitudes, the patient interprets his dysphoria, sense of loss, and physical symptoms in a negative way. His conclusion that he is defective and cannot improve reinforces his negative expectations and negative” (Beck, 1979, p. 130).

When our outcome expectations are dismal, our emotions tend to follow. Or, perhaps, when hopelessness prevails our outcome expectations are lowered. Most likely it is a reciprocal impact with each magnifying the other.

Just like learned helplessness, once a person is consumed by hopelessness, the world appears hopeless. The darkened mental state conceals possible solutions, and there appears to be no way out.

In psychology, hopelessness is included as one of the three primary depressive reactions. The other two are helplessness and despair (Fosha, 2000).

Self-Efficacy and Hopelessness

Another concept closely tied to hopelessness is self-efficacy. “Self efficacy beliefs produce a magical push towards success. When we believe we can, we work a little harder, longer, and smarter” (Murphy, 2021). Albert Bandura wrote, “to the extent that people believe they can prevent, terminate, or lessen the severity of averse events, they have little reason to be perturbed by them.” Conversely, those that feel lack of control over their circumstances in the world, feel vulnerable and see the world as dangerous. Consequently this impacts emotions. Albert Bandura’s research “showed that those who view themselves as inefficacious are at risk for high levels of emotional distress, poor coping, and maladaptive behavior” (Bandura, et al., 1985).

Unheard Emotional Calls for Help

We live our lives among others. We are social beings. A sense of belonging is heralded as a foundational need. A primary factor in relationships is the benefits of emotional attunement and dyadic regulation. When life bears down, preventing attainment of primary goals and needs, we react with anger. When that anger is not heard, we collapse in sadness. Leslie Greenberg refers to this as “Secondary Sadness.” he explains that “this is the kind of depressive, hopeless sadness and resignation that come from a person feeling that his or her anger will not be heard, that it is not valid, or that it will not make an impact. The sadness is felt in response to a feeling of impotent anger” (Greenberg, 2015, Kindle location: 3,051).

Hopelessness and Suicide

C.R. Snyder warned that “this sense of being blocked and frustrated—hopelessness—is the catalyst that unleashes the goal of dying.” He continues to explain, “impediments perceived as being difficult to overcome now and in the future, and those applying to one or more important goals, should be particularly lethal in shutting off to-be thoughts. Under such thinking, not-to-be thoughts appear the logical choice” (Snyder, 2003, Kindle location: 2,463).

Beck’s research found that “the psychological factor contributed most strongly to the seriousness of a suicide attempt. We found that hopelessness was the best indicator of how serious the person was about terminating his life” (Beck, 1979, p. 127). Martin E.P. Seligman suggests that hopelessness can be identified as a subtype of depression. He refers to it as hopelessness depression (Seligman, 1995).

Clinical Identification

Aaron Beck and his colleagues developed the Hopelessness Scale that provide a short, self-report measure of the negative expectations adults hold about their present and future situations. This scale contains twenty-items of a true-false index. Two of the items are “I might as well give up because I can’t make things better for myself,” and “I never get what I want so it’s foolish to want anything.” (Snyder, 2003, Kindle location: 2,630).

Causes and Contributing Factors

Hopelessness can stem from various sources, including personal experiences, traumatic events, chronic stress, or ongoing feelings of failure. Some common causes and contributing factors include:

  1. Adverse life events: Traumas such as the loss of a loved one, breakup, job loss, or financial hardships can shake an individual’s foundations of hope. These life events shatter beliefs and alter the trajectories of our life.
  2. Chronic illness or pain: Long-term health conditions that limit one’s abilities and quality of life may lead to a sense of hopelessness.
  3. Unrealistic expectations: Setting excessively high expectations for oneself or others can result in repeated disappointments, leading to a loss of hope.
  4. Negative thinking patterns: Persistent negative thoughts, including self-criticism, pessimism, and catastrophic thinking, can contribute to feelings of hopelessness. Several studies found that individuals with low expectation thinking styles develop “hopelessness expectation” tendencies (Seligman, 1995).
  5. Lack of social support: Isolation or the absence of a supportive network can intensify feelings of hopelessness.

Child Abuse and Hopelessness

In research conducted on hopelessness, a repeated associated factor is childhood neglect and abuse. Lawrence Heller wrote, “the long-term impact of neglect and emotional abuse includes chronic feelings of worthlessness, guilt, self-blame, self-hatred, vulnerability, generalized mistrust of others, and a pervasive sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle location: 4,046). Perhaps, the natural helpless state of a child, dependent on adults for survival, creates a vulnerability more likely to lead to hopelessness.

Stressful Environments and Hopelessness

Certain environments are associated with hopelessness. Social stress theory holds that social stressors, such as discrimination, stigma, and social isolation, can significantly influence an individual’s mental health. These environments are more likely to cause hopelessness. Accordingly, they are also more likely to lead to mental illness.

Referring to difficult environments, Marshall Goldsmith wrote that they include “all the dead-end situations that make us miserable—and we can’t see any way out of them. It could be a toxic workplace or a violent neighborhood, the kinds of environment that trigger unhealthy behavior steering us away from our goals. There’s not much mystery to why these ugly environments trigger fatigue, stress, apathy, hopelessness, isolation, and anger” (Goldsmith, 2015, Kindle location: 930).

Manifestations of Hopelessness

Hopelessness can manifest in various ways, affecting both one’s emotional and physical well-being. Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Emotional symptoms: Persistent sadness, despair, helplessness, lack of motivation, irritability, anger, and a diminished sense of self-worth.
  • Cognitive symptoms: Negative and self-defeating thoughts, difficulty concentrating, pessimism about the future, and a distorted sense of reality.
  • Behavioral symptoms: Withdrawal from social activities, decreased productivity, neglecting personal hygiene, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, and increased substance abuse.

Coping with Hopelessness

While overcoming hopelessness can be challenging, there are strategies that can help individuals regain a sense of hope and optimism. Here are a few tips to consider:

  1. Seek professional help: Consulting a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can provide valuable support and guidance in navigating hopelessness.
  2. Build a support network: Surround yourself with caring and understanding individuals who can offer emotional support and encouragement during difficult times.
  3. Practice self-care: Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as exercising, practicing mindfulness, pursuing hobbies, or spending time in nature.
  4. Challenge negative thoughts: Identify and challenge negative thought patterns by reframing them and replacing them with more positive and realistic perspectives.
  5. Set achievable goals: Break down larger goals into smaller, attainable ones, and celebrate each step towards progress.

Remember, everyone’s journey with hopelessness is unique, and recovery takes time. With the right support and effort, it is possible to rekindle hope and regain a positive outlook on life.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

The psychological state of hopelessness can cast a dark shadow on an individual’s life, but it is important to remember that there is always a glimmer of light even in the darkest moments. By understanding the causes, manifestations, and coping strategies associated with hopelessness, we can pave the way for healing, growth, and the restoration of hope in our lives.

Disclaimer: This article is informational only and does not replace professional medical or psychological advice. If you or someone you know is struggling with hopelessness, please seek appropriate help from qualified professionals.

Join 50.2K other subscribers


Bandura, A., Taylor, C., Williams, S., Mefford, I., & Barchas, J. (1985). Catecholamine Secretion as a Function of Perceived Coping Self-Efficacy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53(3), 406-414. DOI: 10.1037/0022-006X.53.3.406

Beck, Aaron T. (1979). Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. New York : Meridian Book.

Fosha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books. Retrieved from Kindle.

Goldsmith, Marshall (2015) Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be. Crown Business; First Edition edition.

Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings.  American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.

Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Self-Efficacy. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-24-2021. Accessed 11-12-2023.

Seligman, Martin E.P.; Buchanan, Gregory McClell (1995). Explanatory Style. Routledge; 1st edition.

Snyder, C. R. (2003) Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Free Press.

Psychology Fanatic Book References:

Throughout the vast selection of articles found at Psychology Fanatic, you will find a host of book references. I proudly boast that these referenced books are not just quotes I found in other articles but are books that I have actually read. Please visit the Psychology Fanatic data base of books.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from Psychology Fanatic

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading