By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT

In times of personal or collective suffering and darkness, we need hope. When we turn on the news or scroll through our social media feeds, there can be so much sadness, despair, fear, and loneliness. And if you are in the depths of an eating disorder, addiction, or other mental health issue, hope can feel far away.

Pandora, the first mortal woman in Greek mythology, was given a box as a gift. In it contained all the human blessings and curses. She was instructed to not open the box but her curiosity won out and she looked inside. As she opened it, all of the illnesses and hardships of humanity hidden in the box started coming out. Although she could not stop all of the horrible things from flying out of the box, what was left, at the bottom, was Hope.

The importance of hope in recovery from any illness (mental or physical) is well-established in the research literature, yet for many who are struggling, hopelessness is a powerful force that stamps out the bright light of hope. It can be hard to actively hope for a better tomorrow when today feels so bad.

My intention is to share with you a few ways that you can cultivate hope and hold on to possibility for change, healing, and goodness in your life.

What is Hope? 

Hope is not magic and having hope is not equal to having a magic wand. Hope is not a cure in and of itself, but its presence in the lives of those who are suffering from a physical or mental illness can positively impact the persons’ quality of life. It is a spiritual principle connected to something bigger than ourselves, helping us along the way of finding meaning, purpose, and living true to our values in life. Hope can be an expression of our spirituality or faith.

I love this definition of hope from Dr. Jerome Groopman in his book The Anatomy of Hope, “Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see- in the mind’s eye- a path to a better future”.  He reminds us that hope is not optimism, rather it fully sees the difficulties. It is rooted in reality and gives us the courage to face our challenges. In fact, hope can lead us to choose a more challenging path, standing on the belief that we are capable of doing hard things.

Ways to Cultivate Hope in Recovery

We cultivate hope through listening: When we are unable to have hope for our own lives, it can be a great blessing to listen to the stories of others. There are people who have recovered from eating disorders, achieved abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and healed from the deep wounds of trauma. Many people are now sharing their stories of hope and light with others. Find those people. Listen to what they have to say. Their story and path will be different than yours, yet can still inspire hope and possibility for healing and recovery.

We cultivate hope through relationships: Eating disorders are disorders of disconnection and healing comes through re-connecting with self and others. Developing a relationship with yourself in body, mind and soul means turning toward the light and the dark, accepting your gifts with joy and imperfections with kindness. Hope is also found in relationship to others. Others may hold hope for us when we can’t access it ourselves. As with listening, we can be inspired to hope through allowing ourselves to be seen and accepted by another person that holds the hope for us. This might be a therapist, parent, sibling, or good friend. When we feel hopeless we tend to isolate, yet cultivating hope asks us to do the opposite. To reach out. To connect. To build relationships for healing.

We cultivate hope through practice: Hope sees the challenges and the possibilities. Often times when we are struggling to feel hope and consumed by hopelessness, we are also experiencing a great deal of fear. Facing fears in recovery means practicing things that are new and scary. Sometimes they won’t go well and other times they will. Remember the definition of hope as seeing a path to a better future. Hope is built not by getting rid of emotions such as fear or anxiety, rather by turning toward them, becoming curious about them, welcoming them in, and moving through them. Dr. Groopman identifies fear as one of the great obstacles to hope and suggests we need to find a way to bridle fear so we can give a greater rein to hope. This might be through a spiritual practice, a recovery community, or making the decision to enter into treatment.

Hope requires attention and commitment. We have to (or get to!) work at it. And that is the amazing part about it. If you are feeling hopeless, there is something you can do about it. It is a dynamic emotion and style of thinking about the world. Hope can be built. What gives you hope? What motivates you to keep going and not give up?