One of the keys to any sort of self-improvement, emotional resilience, even just making progress in your own development is also one of the least appreciated: knowing how to perservere, even when the world seems to be falling apart. In fairness, trying to stay positive and how to keep your head up, even when it feels pointless and hopeless, can feel like being told “just keep going, just keep grinding” or toxic positivity. And honestly, it’s hard to feel like there’s hope in the world right now. Just look at… well, everything.
Every day, we read more about assaults on people’s right to choose, politicians using trans kids and LGBTQ people as punching bags to stir up their base and survive primary challenges, we’re entering the third year of a global pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heralded the return of the looming threat of global thermonuclear war. Oh also the Nazis are back.
Of course, the world doesn’t have to be on the brink of WWIII to feel as though there’s no hope. You can have enough heartbreak, struggle and setbacks in your own life to feel as though all hope is lost, regardless of the rest of the world. But whether you’re living through a global crisis, local upheaval or even your own personal long dark teatime of the soul, it’s easy to surrender to despair. It can feel like there’s no point to anything.
But it doesn’t have to. Sometimes the bravest and strongest thing you can do is simply refuse to give up hope. Here’s how to keep hope alive… even when your world is falling apart.
Pay Attention To What You’re Feeding Your Brain
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
The first thing to do when you feel like your world is ending is very simple: make sure that you aren’t drowning yourself in other people’s misery.
Regular readers will have noticed how often I talk about the influence social media has on us, our emotional health and our sense of self-worth. While Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and other social media apps certainly have their good points, they can also be incredibly damaging to us. They’ve been crafted by some of the greatest engineers and social psychologists to be maximally addictive and to keep us engaging with content for as long as they can manage. The quickest and easiest way to do so is to algorithmically drive material to us that we are more likely to interact with, whether that’s through a like, a retweet, a stitch or duet or a comment. And there’re few things that will keep us engaged more than stuff that pisses us off.
We have an inherent negativity bias, where negative thoughts, feelings and experiences affect us five times more than positive ones. This means that we’re much more likely to, for example, retweet that awful hot take in order to dunk on it, or watch that video about how The Last Jedi was made by Kathleen Kennedy because she’d piss away a multi-billion dollar franchise just to cuck Star Wars fans because fuck you penis, that’s why. This presents a perverse incentive to be more negative and angry. I get way more comments, likes and retweets if I snark about somebody’s AITA post on Twitter than I do when I gush about books I’m really loving right now. We get tangible rewards for negativity and anger.
But those rewards also come with costs… and that cost is the emotional toll that constant exposure to all that negativity. And because that negativity is prioritized in the algorithms that run social media, it’s very, very difficult to escape.
I’ve been off Twitter before but this time it feels harder to come back, like this place was slowly frogboiling worse and worse and it’s finally so bad that it’s obvious how fucked up it is never knowing if the next thing you see will be your friend’s cat or Nazi propaganda
— Cliff Jerrison 🌻 (@pervocracy) March 14, 2022
The worst offenders, of course, are the ones who insist on shotgunning their negativity everywhere into other people’s feeds, comments and DMs, regardless of whether anyone even asked. However, even if they’re not shotgunning it at you doesn’t mean that you’re not still getting hit by it.
Here’s the thing: Your brain is like tofu; it takes on the flavors of whatever you marinate it in. The more negative material you engage with, the more you internalize without realizing it. Obviously, if you’ve got the Twitter equivalent of a thousand howler monkeys screaming and flinging shit in your mentions, it’s going to screw with your chi. Same as if, let’s say, TikTok decided you were the main character of the week and even national brands decide to get in on the action. Clearly, that’s the sort of thing that’s going to do your head in. But you don’t need to be directly affected or directly targeted by that negativity for it to hit you.
Just the sheer weight of other people’s despair and depression, even when experienced second-hand, can sap your emotional stamina. Hell, it doesn’t even need to be something that you’re particularly worried about; it’s the emotions that hit us where we live, rather than the targets.
Call it the unfortunate side-effect of being a species that developed a sense of empathy.
Relentless negativity, whether yours or others’, gets in the way of everything. It seeps into your soul and poisons everything around you. It leaves you feeling drained and numb at best, and actively depressed and despondent at worst. Worst of all, it weakens your resolve, saps your drive and leaves you feeling as though there’s no point to anything because clearly the darkness always wins.
This is why, if you want to hold onto hope and have the strength to keep on going, you need to be mindful of just what you’re consuming, where and why. If you don’t want to surrender control over your moods, emotions and self-esteem, you need to take a much more active and direct hand in what you allow into your life and your mind… and what you don’t.
Part of this means being willing to curate the shit out of your social media or even being willing to step away entirely. Turn off people’s ability to retweet things into your feed, unfollow people whose online presence just make you sad, depressed or angry. Use browser extensions to block those subreddits you keep hate-reading. Hell, you may want suspend your account for a while, especially if you can’t let go of the doomscroll or trained the algo to feed you the stuff that leaves you feeling hopeless.
The more you submerge yourself in the mire of negativity, the harder it is to feel positive emotions… certainly not when negativity is so much stronger in our brains than positivity.
What is especially troubling is that the despair and depression can be self-perpetuating. We all have found ourselves stuck in a doomscrolling loop, in part because we tell ourselves it’s necessary. We convince ourselves that if we aren’t maintaining awareness of some awfulness, we’re failing… somehow. While yes, we don’t want to turn to some Panglossian toxic positivity of “good vibes only”, and it’s important not to look away from things just because they’re uncomfortable or upsetting, you also aren’t doing yourself or the world any favors by traumatizing yourself in the name of “being informed”. There’s a difference between being aware and paying attention and just doom scrolling. You aren’t going to solve climate change, COVID or global instability by yourself and certainly not by constantly reading news or opinions that only depress and upset you.
It’s worth remembering that folks will focus more on the negative — sometimes so much so that it seems like having hope or believing in something other than the worst case scenario is rank heresy or a betrayal of community somehow. Again: their worries are valid for them… but that doesn’t mean that they’re accurate or even relevant for you. There’s nothing wrong with believing in the possibility of a better outcome; it’s just easier to focus on the negative. It’s easy to seem smart and insightful by constantly insisting the worst is about to happen; folks will overlook the times you were wrong and focus like a laser on the one time you were right by accident.
And for many, the constant hyping of worst-case-scenarios is its own form of magical thinking; if you worry about it constantly, surely it won’t happen.
Well, no. That doesn’t help at all.
And don’t call me Shirley.
You don’t want to chug nothing but relentless optimism or tireless “grind through it” stoicism, but you don’t need to drown yourself in despair either. In fact, that’s incredibly counterproductive. Damaging your mental health doesn’t benefit anyone, while taking a break makes it possible for you to actually help others in their time of need. There is, after all, a reason why we say “make sure your own oxygen mask is secured before helping others with theirs”. It doesn’t do you any good to try to save someone from drowning if you end up drowning in the process as well.
But reducing the negative is only one step. You also need to increase the positive.
How, you might ask?
Practice Effective Self Care
Speaking of “put on your own oxygen mask first”: part of having the emotional strength and resilience to carry on, even when it all feels pointless, is to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. It’s very easy to talk about the importance of “rise and grind” and prioritizing putting everything aside except The Work and needing to work yourself to the bone in order to be successful, especially when things are good. We live in a culture that expects us to put our own needs second, or even third, to the drive to ‘success’, whatever success means in this case. If you aren’t breaking yourself into pieces to achieve whatever goal you’re supposed to be reaching for then clearly you don’t want it badly enough.
Things are bad? WORK HARDER, SACRIFICE MORE, PUSH YOURSELF HARDER THAN YOU’VE EVER PUSHED BEFORE, WINNERS NEVER GIVE UP THE GRIND, WHEN THINGS GET TOUGH THAT MEANS YOU’RE SUCCEEDING.
But then again: what does it profit a man to succeed if he shatters his mind, body and soul? Success means little if you can’t ever actually appreciate it because you neglected, abandoned or lost everything you cared about in its pursuit.
Now, part of the problem is that we tend to mistake self-soothing for self-care. Don’t get me wrong, both of these are important. It’s important to make sure that you avoid doomscrolling and do the things that help you feel calm or relaxed – and we’ll be talking more about that in a moment. However, while taking a long hot bath or watching your favorite comfort food movie are good… they’re not the same as self-care. Self-care is just that: taking care of yourself and your environment. And it’s not always the most relaxing or soothing thing… but it’s frequently more necessary.
When times are bad, one of the first things we tend to let fall by the wayside is our self-care. Sometimes it’s because we are just working ourselves to the bone and decide that the weird bags of electric meat we call our bodies don’t need more care and maintenance than the bare minimum. Other times, we’re so full of despair and sadness that we can’t bring ourselves to bother to do anything as mundane as “do the dishes” or “eat something with redeeming nutritional value”. But these are the moments when that sort of care is more necessary than ever.
We often think of our bodies and our minds as being separate entities. The body may be the meat and bone mecha your brain is piloting, but they’re basically two different things, right?
Well… not so much, honestly. Our bodies, with all their messiness and attendant needs, affect our minds as much as our minds can affect and influence our bodies. Our brains take input from our bodies and it changes how we think or feel. If we hold a warm beverage, for example, we often feel more warmly inclined towards others. If we’re hungry, tired or stressed, we’re more likely to view others in a more negative light. When we neglect our bodies, it changes our moods, our emotions, even our self-esteem.
This is why real self-care is important – not just doing the things that make you feel good, but prioritizing your physical, mental and emotional well-being. Eating a nutritionally balanced, healthy diet, for example, instead of convenience foods, is important for your physical health. It’s just as important to make sure you’re drinking plenty of water – not soda, coffee or energy drinks, water. Yeah, you may feel like you need the caffeine to power through the lassitude and give you the energy to keep going, but staying hydrated helps you think and feel more clearly and accurately.
Similarly, forcing your body to continue working when you’re exhausted is a mistake. We can joke about how sleep is an inefficient substitute for caffeine – and god knows caffeine has beneficial psychotropic and nootropic effects – but it doesn’t actually treat or cure fatigue. You need actual sleep – ideally at least 5 hours, if not more per day.
Cleanliness is, likewise, about more than just your presentation or grooming, it has distinct effects on your health, emotions and mood. Keeping your living space clean and free of garbage eliminates pests, mold and other nastiness. And keeping things orderly, if not clean and perfectly organized does wonders for mental clarity.
But beyond the pure mechanical benefits of self-care is the psychological effect. When depression or despair kick in and we don’t take care of ourselves, that can create a subtle but powerful negative feedback loop. Yes our external environments are a representation of our inner turmoil… but it by letting them fall to disrepair, we reinforce the idea that we don’t deserve good things or to be taken care of. By making a point of maintaining our bodies and our homes, we remind ourselves that we’re worthy of being cared for. We are tacitly saying that we deserve to be cared for, to eat well and stay hydrated. We are, explicitly and implicitly, making ourselves a priority and that we deserve to prioritize our mental and physical well-being.
Take breaks and let yourself rest. Make sure that what you’re eating actually fuels your body the way you need. Drink more water. When times are especially difficult and motivating yourself to make yourself a priority, consider the 5-2-1 rule: a bare minimum of 5 hours of sleep, two meals and one shower per day. Think of it like doing proper maintenance for your car or bike: it may be annoying or tedious, but it means that you keep it working at peak performance, for as long as you need it to.
Otherwise you risk it falling apart precisely when you need it the most.
While we’re on the topic:
Prioritize Action — Any Kind of Action
Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.
Despair is, among other things, a feeling of helplessness. It’s the sense that you’re powerless to make any sort of meaningful change, especially to the world around you. It’s pernicious and it’s incredibly demoralizing because once you start to feel powerless, you start to lose all hope.
In Texas, for example, we’re watching Governor Abbot and Attorney General Paxton wage war against women and children, especially LGBTQ children, for political points. They’ve passed directives that, among other things, authorize Child Protective Services to treat gender-affirming care for trans kids as child abuse, even after the child in question has turned 18. Because Texas has been gerrymandered to hell and back, it’s very, very hard to mount an effective campaign to fight back; the Texas GOP focused on ensuring that incumbents don’t need to fear electoral challenges from the left, just from right-wing primary challenges. Tennessee, Florida and Alabama have all passed or are attempting to pass similar laws, with similar senses of impunity; it’s very hard to feel as though there’s some way to fight back.
But here’s the thing about helplessness: it’s an illusion. It’s a lie. You have more agency and power than you think. The ultimate source of the dilemma isn’t your ability to affect change so much as the scale. Unless you’re secretly Doctor Manhattan, you’re not going to single-handedly stop climate change. Unless you’ve been sitting on the Infinity stones all this time, you’re not going to Thanos-snap COVID out of existence.
But the fact that you’re not a literal god isn’t the same thing as being helpless or powerless. As I said: it’s a matter of scale, not agency. So while you don’t want to give up on the big issues… you want to change the scale at which you’re trying to work. By doing so, you’re fighting back against that sense of helplessness.
That’s why the key to avoiding helplessness is to choose meaningful action. Not just action for action’s sake but action that makes a difference, even if that difference is small. Kicking in $10 to a GoFundMe for a trans person trying to get to a more inclusive and welcoming state may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but to that person that could mean the difference between being stuck in a state that criminalizes their existence and being safe. Texting or calling your local, state and national representatives over bigoted bills and the like may seem like weak tea compared to what citizens in Ukraine are doing, but it makes a difference.
It’s very easy to feel as though the only meaningful actions are the ones that are the most obviously influential. After all, who cares if you Venmo’d your friend the price of lunch so they could have two meals today instead of just one? That’s not going to end world hunger. But, again, the scale of the problem is the distraction. It’s Main Character Disease, where you believe the only efforts that matter are the ones that are the biggest, loudest and splashiest… the ones that seem to make the biggest difference.
But the truth is that most problems aren’t solved single-handedly. FDR, Churchill and Stalin didn’t stop the Nazis by themselves. One person didn’t haul the stranded soldiers at Dunkirk or rescue all the trapped civilians during floods in Houston or New Orleans or other natural disasters. These were all the work of many people, coming together in a multitude of ways.
Even the most visible agents for change didn’t work alone. Every significant change and improvement in our world – from the polio vaccine to civil rights – came about because of hundreds and thousands of people working towards the same goal. Some could contribute in large and flashy ways. Some could only contribute in small ways. But they were all important. They were all necessary. And they all helped bend the arc of history towards a better tomorrow.
You may not be the biggest, loudest or most influential voice or force for change. But that doesn’t mean that what you do doesn’t have impact and doesn’t have meaning or doesn’t make a difference. Every avalanche is made of pebbles and every blizzard is made of snowflakes. One voice may not sway a politician, but enough voices form a chorus and every part of the chorus is vital. You may feel like you’re pounding your head against the wall and have only the tiniest crack to show for it.
But even a small crack is proof that you’ve made a difference. It may not seem like much, but put enough tiny cracks in the wall, and the wall crumbles.
Now with that being said: while raising awareness on Twitter and the like can be useful, yelling at folks online isn’t the sort of action we’re talking about here. If anything, your time online is better spent propping up the efforts of people you admire and sending care to those who need love and support. Keeping folks aware is great, but you want to make sure that you’re contributing to the good while minimizing the bad. If you can’t contribute or you feel like the amount you can give isn’t enough, you can always boost the signal and get the word to others who might not hear otherwise. Sometimes the action that you need to take is to help enable others to take action. That’s as important and as valid as taking action directly, yourself.
Speaking of which:
Express Love and Support For Others
You know that whole idea of what goes around comes around or you get what you give? It’s all true; the love, support and hope you give to others is the seed for the love, hope and support you get back. And giving that love and support can be especially important when we feel like we’re facing our darkest hour. There’re few things that can feel more important than knowing you’re not alone, especially at a time when you feel at your most isolated.
One of the long-running jokes-but-not-really during the early days of the pandemic was “go check on your extroverted friends; they’re not doing well right now”. As someone who really didn’t like what the lockdown was doing to his mental health, yeah, that’s not QUITE so funny to me so much as a “no, seriously, go check on them.” It can be especially difficult for the folks we may see as “the strong one”, the person who seems to always be able to bear up under the heaviest burdens and who never seems to complain. Of course, as an entire generation of people discovered (in no small part because the songs will never leave your head), the strongest among us are often the ones who are the most in need of support from others… in part because everyone thinks they’re strong.
The fact that someone doesn’t complain doesn’t mean that they’re not feeling the (ahem) surface pressure of it all. Many times, they don’t feel like they have the right to complain. As a result, they’re often struggling in ways that people don’t see and may never see… if someone doesn’t make a point of reaching out to them.
But reaching out to others to provide support isn’t just about sharing burdens or trying to provide ease. It’s also about the need for connection and maintaining those connections to others.
One of the things we lose sight of, especially when it seems like everything is falling apart and also on fire, is that we live in a society. Maybe a man is an island, but we’re all part of an archipelago, and we all have a need to work for the collective good of all. Part of making things feel less dire is to make sure that your friends, family, even favorite creators all get reminded that someone’s thinking of them and that someone cares. Even if it seems awkward or insufficient in the scope of things.
In times of crisis, it’s all too easy to feel isolated from everyone; many times folks are isolated or cut off from their support systems. When we reach out to others to express to them that we still care, that we want to help and provide support can be huge. That check in, that kind word may not seem like much, but it can be precisely what gives them the strength to carry on when they need to.
Just as importantly, reaching out encourages others to reach out as well. That reminder that yes, we do live in a society and yes we do care for others, is the essence of “pay it forward.” The ripples that can result from this seemingly small gift can, in turn, remind others to reach out as well and to provide support as well. And when you’re the one who finds themselves needing support, comfort or reassurance? Well, that’s often when what you’ve given to others comes back around for you.
This is one of those times where the small, heartfelt action can have much greater impact than something large and flashy. For all that someone tossing a small fortune at a problem can generate headlines and social media posts, those often don’t exactly trickle down into the personal level. Yeah, it’s great that $_CORPORATION made a big donation to some charity or concern, but that hardly eases the pain, frustration, loneliness or sadness people feel on the individual level. But knowing that somebody sees you, cares for you and – importantly – cares enough to reach out and check on you? That can have a much bigger and more immediate impact in someone’s life than any amount of charitable donations, public works or other heroic efforts.
It’s not “cool”, necessarily, nor will it make you feel like a hero. But then again… that’s not always the point. We don’t need another hero (sorry not sorry), and a lot of times, that sort of heroism isn’t what’s called for. Not everybody can be a Legolas or a Gandalf or an Aragorn, nor do they want to. Hell, not everyone can be a Frodo. But when things were at their darkest and all was lost, it’s worth remembering: it wasn’t Frodo who saved the day. It wasn’t Aragorn, and it certainly wasn’t Gandalf.
It was Samwise Gamgee.
The most unassuming and easily overlooked of them all, providing support when his friend had faltered and fell short, is who ultimately made success possible.
Not everybody needs to be the DPS or the Tank. Sometimes the most vital person of all is the support class.
Oh, and one more thing:
Celebrate the Tiny Wins, The Hope Spots and the Small Moments of Grace
There IS good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
In times of crisis, whether on the global or personal scale, feeling good about something can feel… well, it can feel like you’re doing something wrong. A moment of joy at a time when the pillars of heaven shake and fire is raining from the skies seems like you’re letting people down or not understanding or reckoning with the immensity of the moment. It seems almost blasphemous to be happy or to smile when others are living in terror or reeling from the shock and impact of it all. And so, we often turn away from those things. They feel frivilous. Unimportant. A waste of our time and energy.
They’re not. In fact, those moments are probably more important than they ever had been before.
Because here’s the thing: we need those moments of joy. In times of crisis, fear and pain, joy and hope are part of what keep us going. One of the things we don’t think about when we talk about depression or PTSD or even just survival is the numbness and paralysis. The human mind can only feel things for so long before it just… shuts down, really. It runs out of bandwidth and then, lacking the resources to do anything else it just goes blank. And in a very real way, that numbness and paralysis can be worse because it ties right back into that helplessness.
When behaviorists studied learned helplessness by shocking dogs at seemingly random intervals and there was no way for them to avoid those shocks, eventually the dogs just laid down and quit trying. They gave up and the only thing they thought they could do was just suffer and endure it as best they could.
This is precisely what happens to us when we forget to hold onto the good in this world. The immensity of it and our seeming inability to change or affect it can feel like it’s so much bigger than us that we end up feeling like there’s no point to anything. This is why it’s important, vital even, to take the wins, no matter how tiny. The little moments of good and happiness are more important than ever when things are at their worst. Yes, even when that good is a fresh cup of coffee on a brisk morning, a comfort-food movie on the TV or rereading a favorite fanfic or playing your favorite video game. These are the things that keep us alive. They’re the things that give us the strength to keep on going and to remember why we push through the dark times and back into the light.
Feeling good or having a moment of peace or happiness in the middle of turmoil and chaos isn’t a betrayal of… anyone. Never having a break doesn’t mean you’re a better person. Being happy when bad things are happening elsewhere doesn’t diminish the impact or importance of whatever else is going on. If we can only be as happy as the most miserable among us, then all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to burn out and become a casualty yourself. And that’s of no benefit to anyone.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be relentlessly positive/good-vibes-only/no-bummers toxic positivity either. That isn’t any better and only serves to cut you off from your honest feelings. Acknowledging the good and celebrating the small victories just means that you’re allowed to appreciate good things. In times of trouble and strife that’s actually incredibly important.
Incidentally, you can also acknowledge your own problems, even if they’re what author Seanan McGuire calls “Tahani problems” — problems that seem like the sole province of the privileged. Yeah, it may seem petty to, say, complain that the pandemic canceled your birthday because oh hey, we can’t see each other for fear of, y’know, dying.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still bother you or that your problems hurt. They’re still problems. The existence of people who are worse off doesn’t mean that you don’t feel what you feel, nor does it mean that you’re a bad person for feeling it. Yeah, it’s decidedly not a good look to say “enough about you sucking chest wound, I’ve got a hangnail”, but you don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that the things that bother you or upset you don’t exist because Kyiv is under siege.
Look, performative misery doesn’t benefit anyone. At best, it’s just saying “I care SO MUCH that I can’t possibly feel good about other things, and that makes me a better person than you.” At worst, it demands everyone else be as vocally miserable as they are, at all times. But misery doesn’t actually change anything, and you need those moments of happiness and joy to have the strength to actually MAKE the changes that make things better.
So yes, go binge some cake decorating YouTube videos or watch TikToks about absurd recipes or folks recreating the Peacemaker opening. The world’s not going to end just because you have a moment of joy. But pausing to savor those tiny victories and moments of grace may well be what keeps you in the fight.