Overcoming Despair in the Dark Seasons

RAFT Team, November 30, 2020

We’re in the dark of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. And more than the physical darkness, you may feel emotional darkness and despair. Perhaps you are grieving life as it used to be, the loss of a loved one, or you’re missing face-to-face interactions with clients, friends, and family. The urge to just muster through, to avoid dwelling on the loss, or to pretend that you’re fine is normal. Because, yes, the darkness is too difficult to dwell on. Overcoming despair isn't easy.

But healing can’t begin until you acknowledge the need for it, to admit that something is broken, that something is lost. Otherwise, despair can overwhelm you, touching every area of life. Sleep is scant, focus is dim, and good health slips. Overcoming despair starts with learning how to make the journey through it easier. It is possible to have hope, even when things feel the darkest.

1. Acknowledge that all things end.

This dark period will end. It will not last forever. You may not know when nor how, but just as the night fades softly into morning, there will be a conclusion to this period. And while there’s unknown in the middle, the light is coming.

Make a list of all the things you can think of that have a measurable end. Some cycle through a pattern, ending then beginning again. Nature is full of them, where things end but hope follows. Spring follows winter. Winter follows fall. Trees lose leaves but bud again when it's warmer. Geese migrate north to south then north again. Waves push onto shore, roll back to the sea, and come to shore again. When things get difficult, review your list. Remember that change is coming. This season of despair will end and hope will surface.

Acknowledging that all things end is key in overcoming despair

2. Breathe.

You may be one of those people who holds your breath when facing uncertainty. And you don’t even realize it until you suddenly let out that breath when the crisis is over and drop your shoulders. In despair, you remain in this heightened state. Your muscles hold tension all the time, which can lead to aching, stiffness, and knots. Your digestion suffers. And your brain fogs.

When you find yourself in this state, pause. Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. And when you try to convince yourself that you don’t have time, that you must act immediately, realize that you don’t. This short breathing pause can bring more calm, clarity, and focus to address whatever issue you’re facing.

Overcoming despair means pausing to breathe

3. Change your habits.

When you’re stuck, any healthy habits you may have established can fade. Negative thoughts often pile on top of one another. You start speaking to yourself differently, perhaps with less respect, perhaps in ways that shame yourself. You tell yourself you should be able to handle this better, as if there were some higher standard for grief and despair. Thoughts like, “I’ll never be happy” or “I can’t do this” can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’re the impetus for “stuckness” rather than the result of it.

Give yourself permission to take emotional time away from the problems you’re facing. It may be in 5 minute sessions at first. Make a list of the things that weigh you down, tape them to the door, and then leave the room, consciously leaving them behind until you choose to pick them up again. Take a few moments to meditate. Set a timer and don’t allow yourself to problem solve during that time, and instead just rest, relax, or pursue some other positive downtime activity.

Take stock of your daily activities. Shift them from television, doomscrolling, and other distractions to more calming activities. Take a walk through your neighborhood. Meditate. Read uplifting and positive things. Try gentle stretching. Go to bed earlier. Focus on resting, healing, and building healthy, supportive relationships.

4. Trust the process.

When changing habits, you might find yourself slipping back into the old habits. They’re comfortable, just like your favorite pair of jeans. You’ve lived there for so long that you know the ropes and know what to expect.

During the process of change, know you will most likely have a few “fall backs.” When you realize this has happened, be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge it for what it is, no more and no less, and shift back into your new habits of overcoming despair. Post reminders around your house, in your car, and by your bed to breathe. New habits may wax and wane. Pick up where you dropped off and take a baby step. Trust the process and relish any and all progress you make.

5. Be patient.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, nor does it make loss easier. You don’t “get over” things. In the initial months of loss, the holes are all that seem to exist. This is grief. Be patient in the process. The all-consuming grief will come to an end. There will come a time when other things gradually surround those holes and make life more than just the loss.

It takes time to change our way of thinking and our habits of despair. There is no quick fix or magic pill. As we grow into new habits and new practices for overcoming despair, they will slowly bolster us and prepare us for even more positive change.