If you are feeling depressed and hopeless about the state of the world, then you are one of many people. With this post I am hoping to share some reflections and teachings that have helped me to embrace those difficult feelings and to continue to see a path forward. You’ll find a list of further resources at the bottom too.
Feeling depressed about the state of the world - it would be hard not to
In Western culture, we tend to fixate on feeling happy all the time. So much so that when we’re not feeling happy, then there’s this fear that something must be wrong with us. As if we are somehow failing at being human, and as if something within us needed fixing, as fast as possible. Our culture tends to value progress and success, with the direction of movement typically being “up”. Up, up, up.
So, let’s just be real for a moment: If you aware of what’s happening on and to our planet, and you end up feeling heavy-hearted and full of sorrow as a result, perhaps filled with anger and outrage too, then I would argue that’s a natural and healthy response. It might be deeply uncomfortable and unsettling, and perhaps it’s making your day-to-day living hard, but those reactions are understandable, natural and shared by tens of thousands of people across the planet. It’s not a feeling of going up, but quite the opposite: down, down, down.
Loss, destruction, death, grief, sorrow, fear – these are parts of our soul that we often don’t want to acknowledge even to ourselves. And yet this is what so many of us are feeling right now – perhaps in your own personal life but certainly in the wider world. Perhaps there’s a sense of disbelief over what’s happening at the moment: Not only are we hopefully coming out of a long and extremely challenging pandemic, but we are facing climate disasters and social instability – the extent of both which are vast and devastating . And now, on top, there’s even the threat of nuclear war.
Turn toward the feelings
There seems to be pain everywhere we look. Our basic trust in the future is shaking. Perhaps you’re feeling terrified or are struggling with a huge sense of dread, or maybe you’re dealing with more uncertainty than you think you can handle.
I encourage you to give those feelings space. Take some deep breaths, and try to acknowledge what wants to be felt. Fear, despair, anger, upset, sadness, grief… give them space. It might feel hard and heavy, so then let it be hard and heavy: emotions aren’t dangerous. Uncomfortable and unsettling perhaps, but not dangerous.
So often in our culture, we tend to remain at a safe distance from pain and grief. We distract ourselves, we forget or pretend things aren’t happening, and we numb ourselves and our senses. Whether it’s through too much shopping, drinking, overeating, overworking or through drugs, sex, TV, the internet, or constant trips abroad etc – we often do those things in order to avoid feeling our feelings. In order to keep repressing what needs to be felt.
Whilst this is undoubtedly a coping mechanism that many of us perhaps simply need in order to survive, it comes at a huge cost: We stop feeling alive. We loose our vitality and our sense of power and agency. We become depressed.
As Francis Weller, psychotherapist and writer, says:
“Turning toward our suffering is essential. We must not only endure our times of pain and sorrow, hoping to get to the far shore of them, we must also actively engage them and feel them fully. This move takes great courage. It is hard to open ourselves up to the painful emotions that await us without an adequate level of compassion and support.”
Healing happens in community
Acknowledging our feelings can be painful, and sometimes that’s best done either in the company of a wise and loving friend or group, or with a skilled therapist/counsellor. When other people can provide a container for our emotions, our suffering often decreases. Healing happens in community.
So many of us take a very stoic approach to suffering: We must deal with our problems on our own and become heroes in the process. Only once we’ve overcome the challenge might we open up to others about how rough life has felt to us lately. But again, feeling low is not a reflection of weakness. It’s part of being human.
I encourage you to share how you are feeling with trusted others, with people who you think will understand. We need to find containers for our feelings and not suffer alone. Tell them about your despair or panic or dread, and then listen to theirs too. We need to gather our village and seek support within it- the village that we humans all expected to find when we were born. The lack of the wise elders in our communities is acutely felt at this time.
But importantly, whoever you’re sharing your raw feelings with needs to be someone who can listen with full presence. Find someone who has the capacity to sit with uncomfortable feelings and who doesn’t just want to immediately give you advice. If you can’t think of anyone, consider a counsellor or psychotherapist. Do not suffer on your own. Just don’t.
Actively make room for beauty in your life
The despair over what you’re reading in the news or are perhaps encountering in your local area can make you close off to the world. But walking around close-hearted is not only a painful way of being, it’s also not helpful: It doesn’t offer the world the healing it needs. We need people who are so moved by their pain that they become powerful forces of change. We need people with open hearts, even if (or especially because?) they’re quite broken too.
Beauty is the very thing we need in order to keep our hearts open, and sorrow and beauty coexist side by side. If you can be in touch with your grief and suffering, you can also feel joy and love much more deeply.
“When your heart is broken, you have cracks in your heart… It lets the light in.”
We simply need beauty as a source of nourishment to our soul: the awe and wonder it can provoke remind us that life is still very much worth living.
So here are some ideas to seek encounters with beauty:
- Play or listen to music that touches your soul
- Sing and dance
- Put flowers in your home
- Read or listen to poetry that speaks to you
- Sit by a tree, on a mountain, by a river, by the sea
- Watch children playing outside
- Engage in art and craft activities
- Go for a long walk
- Watch an animal in the wild
- Make love
- Go to your place of worship
- Engage in meditation or prayer
- Create daily or weekly rituals
- Have an open conversation with someone who also knows how to share from the heart
- Do some gardening
- Cook a meal using ingredients from your local area
Beauty awakens the soul to act.”
– Dante Alighieri.
Calm your nervous system & anxiety
Whether you would say that you are feeling fear and anxiety at the moment or not, these are stressful times for our nervous system. Because our brains are built to process threat above anything else, we are sensitised to the world around us. As we are witnessing what is happening to other people, animals, plants and the planet, we feel threatened. Even more so if you, yourself, are worrying about your very own safety, either in the here and now or in the future. That is a lot to cope with.
Here are some ways to help you cope better with the stress, and to remain as calm as you possibly can. The world needs calm people.
- Take a deep breath, and take a pause. Particularly if you’ve noticed that your breathing has become more shallow lately, practice breathing slowly. Sloooow down.
- Consider when you are consuming new information through news or social media. Nobody benefits from you checking the news every hour.
- Focus on sleep – which for many of us simply means not going to bed too late and reducing our use of electronic devices at night
- Get your three main meals a day, avoid too much caffeine and sugar or processed foods. Try to feed yourself well during this time.
- Move your body & listens to what you need: Slow or fast?
- Stick to your daily routines. Clean the house, cook a meal, take your dog out etc.
- Seek love & soothing touch if you can.
How to cultivate active hope
I know it can be hard to remain hopeful when you are feeling really low. When you feel helpless, anxiety and depression can arise. But we need to stay engaged without being just completely overwhelmed. We need to stay calm under pressure and continue to make good choices.
Remember that the news with the most dramatic headlines stand out. Remember too that there are thousands of people and community groups actively doing good work. People who promote and work towards a fairer society, peace, mother nature and much more.
Allow your feelings of despair or fear or outrage (or whatever it is you are feeling) to propel you towards action. Use the energy and figure out what it is that you can and want to do, in your small corner of the world. Don’t become paralysed. Throughout our evolution, humans have overcome numerous other extremely challenging times.
*And remember that if you are feeling suicidal, you need to reach out for help. I will never forget listening to one of my favourite psychologists Rick Hanson talking about suicide and urging his listeners repeatedly with: “Just don’t do it”. Get help.
A few further resources for you
By no means an exhaustive list (!), but do take a look at these few resources below for further support during this difficult time.
- Video by psychotherapist, author and soul-activist Francis Weller on grief. I can highly recommend his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow too.
- Being Well podcast episode by Rick and Forrest Hanson on Supporting Yourself During Difficult Times
- Video by Jack Kornfield A Peaceful Heart in a Time of War
- Book by Duane Elgin: Choosing Earth: Humanity’s Journey of Initiation Through Breakdown and Collapse to Mature Planetary Civilization. Free pdf made available by the author.
- Mother nature – she’s everywhere and you’ll find lots of support there.