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What is Hope?

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In this post, I wanted to discuss the idea of hope. As many know, 2020 has been less than perfect. Many people have faced and continue to face difficult situations during this time. During difficult times hope can be the light that leads you out of those dark places. Hope, in general, is a difficult topic. It is easy for anyone to say: "be more positive," "take control of what you can control." Hope is frequently something perceived as either you have it or you don't. Maybe you are in a place of despair and feel all hope is lost. Wherever you are on the spectrum, having more hope couldn't hurt.

In a study performed by Martin Seligman in 1967, he took a group of dogs and placed them into cages that would shock them. Through this study, he developed a theory called "Learned Helplessness." In his study, there were three groups of dogs. One control group received electrical shocks while in a cage and no ability to escape. The second group could escape the shocks by walking to the other side of the enclosure. The third group never received shocks. In the second round of the test, there was a small barrier added that the dogs could jump over, allowing them to escape the electrical shock. To their surprise, the only dogs that did not jump over the barrier to avoid the shocks were the dogs who initially had no escape. In comparison, with the other groups of dogs who escaped quickly.

Learned helplessness is often the result of what is perceived from an inescapable situation. Often people develop depression and severe anxiety disorders when faced with these types of realities and develop negative coping skills. Just like the dogs in Seligman's study. Most of the work I do as a therapist is working with clients who have endured traumas. These clients' reality all to often embodies learned helplessness. They become paralyzed by fear, PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Luckily, hope is something that can be developed and has substantial impacts on how the brain functions. Dr. Seligman even wrote about this in his book called "Learned Optimism."

A similar study done on rats researched the opposite effect, evaluating if "learned optimism" can be achieved. They found that the rats who had been able to control their environment and escape the shock had a higher rate of resiliency and better problem-solving skills. These skills lasted the rats' entire life. This reveals that skills learned from overcoming adversity often have lasting effects. You see this play out often in highly successful people consistently. When resilient people are faced with adversity, they seem to respond in a way that is full of optimism and hope. Often they see the aversive situation as something to overcome and learn from, even though it may cause them discomfort. Some examples are Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln just to name a few. All had to face adversity and seem to overcome the challenge, although they experienced pain and failure.

How do you develop and harness this powerful skill to identify and pursue hope or optimism? You start by looking at the situation and challenging it. As mentioned above, it's easy to verbalize "be positive, look on the bright-side" but reality often is sobering. I always advise my clients to keep things realistic. Learned helplessness or feeling hopeless is often not realistic and not a true reality. Even in the bleakest of situations, there is always something to grow from. One of my favorite neurologist and psychiatrist is Victor Frankl. His story embodies the power of hope. If you are looking for a good read, check out Victor Frankl's book "Mans search for meaning." The book explores his story of suffering during the holocaust. Even after losing his family and friends and enduring unimaginable pain emotionally, physically, and spiritually ; he was still able to see hope. He was able to recognize and harness its power of hope to help him through one of the worst times in human history. Frankl could not escape the bleak reality, he was able to recognize the severity of the situation but still found hope. You do not need to downplay your suffering you currently or have gone through. Avoiding the pain that is already there is not learning or overcoming adversity. Stay in reality, recognize the bad and the good. Why is it good to recognize your challenges? Because it prevents you from avoiding or dismissing what is in front of you. I see this all too often clients who want to avoid the painful situation they face, which prolongs their pain. Once you have a clear view of what you face, then you can focus on moving towards overcoming your current circumstances.

As you make progress recognizing your reality in the aversive situation, the next step is to learn, grow, and move forward from the challenge you face. Victor Frankl would often say: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." In short, no matter what is thrown at you, you can choose how you respond. How you respond is apart of your story of overcoming what was originally perceived as a hopeless situation. Rather, recognize your ability to learn and endure those adversities to grow you into something new. Switching your mind from "I'm set in my ways" to "I can overcome," is necessary to face challenges and overcome them. This allows your mind to have the kindling it needs to start the fire for change. With care, that fire can grow into the light you need it to be to help you carry through adversities. This begins the power of "What if." What if I can overcome my past. What if I tried my best to get that promotion or lose weight. What if I was able to get that degree, ask that person out. 'What if' can be powerful to move from helpless to creating change.

An exercise you can use is positive self-talk. Here is an example: I like to think I enjoy running some times. While on a run one morning, I just wanted to stop. I was tired, sore, and it was drizzling rain and cold. My mentality was not in a space to challenge the situation. For whatever reason, my mind remembered this tactic. It is a CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) intervention I discuss with clients often. This day while running, I started doing this practice. I started challenging the situation and talking about how I can endure and overcome it. My mind started milling through different life experiences in which I was able to endure hardship. Quickly, the run became manageable. Immediately my ability to face this "adversity" became easier, and I was able to finish the run. To be honest, when I employ this tactic I often feel silly initially. But even during a simple run, it was powerful. During that run, I was able to add another half mile and could have kept going but stopped because of time constraints. Although a run is a minor example, this skill can be applied to more significant and difficult situations.

Helpful hints for positive self-talk:

-Draw from your life experiences and achievements.

-Get angry towards the challenge. Example: "I'll show them by doing something extraordinary."

-Draw off of spiritual beliefs. Use scripture or statements that are true to you. Example: "I am a child of God" and "I am loved" etc.

Notice all of these examples draw from reality, and they are not overly pessimistic or overly optimistic. When you think realistically, you can recognize the adversity appropriately and face it.

Your brain is incredible and its ability to grow is staggering. A study done by C. S. Green and D. Bavelier reveals this. The human brain is diverse and able to develop and learn and grow in new ways, which include learning to change from helplessness to optimism. Historically pessimism and optimism are discussed as if they are concrete mindsets. Research shows that optimism and pessimism can be a learned mindset just as much as you can learn a new skill set like sowing, woodworking, or a new language. So, What is hope? I would define hope as a learned way of thinking that can help you overcome adversities and difficult situations. Adversity will come, so learning to grow from that adversity is key to facing difficult times.

I hope this motivates those who are struggling in difficult times and feeling hopeless to endure. Start by recognizing the situation and being realistic. Ask yourself "what if," and utilize positive self-talk. These are simple but difficult to practice skills but can have long-lasting effects. I have attached a few resources that are mentioned in the blog post for those of you interested. If you are struggling and unable to get out of your situation, I highly encourage you to seek out help from a therapist in your area.

Thank you and until next time. Live your best life today.

Aaron Martinez M.Ed. LPC


Mark Seligman

Learned Helplessness

Learned optimism.

Victor Frankl

Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning

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