The coronavirus pandemic has left many of us struggling to feel optimistic.
After months of non-stop bad news and anxiety-inducing headlines, it’s no surprise that so many of us are finding it hard to feel hopeful right now, especially when many of the things we’ve been looking forward to – weddings, holidays and birthday celebrations, for example – have been cancelled or delayed as a result of the crisis. Combine this with the massive amount of uncertainty we’re all facing, and the idea of ‘looking on the bright side’ isn’t as easy as it once seemed.
But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, according to Owen O’Kane, a Sunday Times bestselling psychotherapist and former NHS mental health clinical lead, it’s more important than ever that we try to cultivate hope and look towards the future, no matter how uncertain things might look.
“When we allow ourselves to look forward we don’t feel stuck,” O’Kane explains. “To use an analogy: looking forward is like untying a knot. If you allow yourself to look forward and to trust that there are possibilities, then suddenly you don’t feel so stuck and it doesn’t feel like the current situation is going to go on forever.”
Looking forward is the key, O’Kane explains. When we’re stuck in a difficult situation – like the current pandemic – it’s easy to become focused on the dark things which are going on around us, because that’s all we can see in the present. However, he says, when we allow ourselves to look forward – to imagine a life after the pandemic – we give ourselves a chance to explore the possibility of a brighter future.
“We are in difficult, challenging times at the moment, and if all of our focus and energy goes on the dark times and the challenges and the problems, that has a detrimental effect on our mood and stress levels,” he explains. “What we know is that when our focus is on things that are challenging or difficult, then we produce more cortisol [the stress hormone].
“However, if we then allow ourselves to think, OK, this particular point may be a tough moment but I’m going to trust that this isn’t a forever situation, then that looking forward allows the brain to consider other possibilities.”
That consideration of other possibilities gives us hope – a feeling which unlocks a whole host of benefits, O’Kane explains. “Sometimes when people think about hope, there is a danger it’s seen, as a ‘fluffy’, or ‘magic’ concept that has no real significance. This isn’t the case.
“Neuroscientists have discovered that hope impacts significantly on our brain chemistry. When we are able to see life through the lens of hope, there is an increased release of endorphins and enkephalins. These are the chemicals that are released when someone uses morphine, and of course people often describe a sense of calm and wellbeing when they use morphine for pain.
“When we feel hopeful, we are also likely to feel more motivated. This change can then spur us on to do more activities in life. Subsequently mood improves further and anxiety reduces as a result of increases in hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin. The positive impact on our brains and how we function is quite remarkable.”
With this in mind, O’Kane has partnered with The Princes Trust on a new campaign called #LookingForward, which aims to get people thinking about life after coronavirus.
As he explains, the act of simply looking forward – whether that’s to September, Christmas or this time next year – allows us to imagine a time when the threat from coronavirus is significantly reduced, therefore helping us to deal with the tough times we’re going through at the moment.
How to be more hopeful
We know that looking forward can help us to feel more hopeful – but what else can we do to bring more hope into our lives on a daily basis?
For O’Kane, it’s all about choosing to live with hope – that is, not fighting our impulse to look forward and imagine a brighter time.
“For anybody not feeling hopeful at the moment, I’d say the first thing to do is consider hope as a possibility,” he says. “Hope isn’t something you can enforce on somebody, but I think we can give it to them as an option. The one thing I would really encourage people to do is to allow themselves to be hopeful – to really consider what the benefits are.”
He continues: “One of the easiest ways to live hopefully is also learning to take one thing at a time, rather than trying to control what’s coming next.”
In terms of tangible actions we can take, O’Kane also recommends being mindful about the choices we’re making on a daily basis, and making sure not to surround ourselves with situations, people and information that might negatively impact our mood too significantly.
“We have choices about how much material we flood the brain with,” he says. “We have choices about the kinds of conversation we have and where we put our focus and energy. I think that’s a really important thing because people often lose sight when they get caught in the middle of something terrible.
“Sometimes it’s just about that ability to sit back and think you do have a lot more control than you realise to change your mindset and make choices which are going to work better for you.”
Ten Times Happier: How To Let Go Of What’s Holding You Back by Owen O’Kane is out now.