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Friday, March 16, 2012

A Little Hope Goes a Long Way

I remember as a child going on a mountain hike one hot summer day with some of my older siblings and their friends. It didn't take long for me to get so tired I began to lag behind the rest. And the further behind I got, the more exhausted and terrible I felt, yet I didn’t want to admit I needed help.

Finally someone noticed and suggested the group pause to let me catch up. Then that kind person took my hand and walked with me for the rest of the climb. I can’t even remember who it was, but I’ll never forget how much better it made me feel. Even though we continued to move at a good pace, I actually experienced new physical as well as emotional energy to reach the top with the rest.

A little help and a little hope goes a long way.

I sometimes ask my clients to rate their emotional state on a scale of 0-10, a ten meaning they feel euphoric or ecstatic (something we rarely experience), zero meaning they are suicidally depressed (which most of us, thankfully, also rarely experience), and five feeling just average or so-so, neither really bad nor especially good. Distressed clients often report a current mood range of about 2-4, as compared to a wished for 6-8.

Being mentally healthy has as much to do with our level of functioning as it does with the state of our feelings, but our mood levels are an indicator of our general state of well being. So what can we do to stay up, feel reasonably positive, more of the time?

A key factor, I believe, is to restore a greater sense of hope. No matter how bad things are in the present, or have been in the past, if we can borrow--from the good Bank of Hope--some evidence-based belief that things will get better, then we will be able, with God’s help and the help of other good people, to feel and to function better, and to keep up the fight. The Bible actually defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not (yet) seen."

Being suicidal, by definition, is to experience the loss of all hope, to believe that there is absolutely nothing to look forward to but more despair. This means that unless my clients are actively suicidal, I assume they still have at least some hope, if only through believing that seeing a therapist might help them get better.

It is this kernel of faith, even if its only the size of a grain of mustard seed, that I want to build on to help them deal with the mountain of distress they feel stands in the way, and either to have that mountain removed or to be able to find a way around or over it.

Not surprisingly, in drug trials that are done for testing the effects of antidepressants, there is always a control group that is given a placebo, a so called sugar pill. Amazingly, that group often experiences nearly as much relief from depression as do the ones actually taking the drug. This isn’t just because they trick themselves into believing they are less depressed, but because the very hope of getting better releases good endorphins in their brains, a natural drug, if you please, that makes a real difference in their well being.

A helpful web site I discovered recently for individuals dealing with mental illness is called, appropriately, www.mentalhope.wordpress.com.
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