Despair is created from a loss of hope. As a most depressive experience, it is bound to every hope that does not come true. Despair includes such things as assumptions, expectations and anticipations, but only if they include hope (which is an innermost desire that they will come true). The depressive state forces introspection so that the causes of the loss are analysed to help negate such losses in the future. The instinctive self reflection is to stop us repeating things that prevented us from realising our dreams. Disappointment is the less intense version of despair and relates to assumptions, expectations and anticipations that are less important than hopes.
Hopes are future-based, and as their temporal closeness reaches the present, they are materialised or lost. When hopes come true, they cease to be future representations and become real events, and joy or elation is experienced. When hopes are lost, they cease to be future representation too, for they become representations of losses. As a dream’s temporal transition passes from thoughts of the future to past losses, despair is experienced.
The significance of the lost hope relates to the intensity of the despair experienced. When despair is felt, people instinctively become passive, shut down, and often sit motionless with no wish to move. Their heartbeat drops, circulation slows, the skin becomes paler, and facial muscles hang more loosely from the bones.1 The body becomes limp. Both actions and expressions are affected just like after a big blow or shock to the body.
The eyes become heavy and dull due to reduced blood flow whilst looking vacant with drooped eyelids. Inner eyebrows are often acutely raised which causes the forehead immediately above to wrinkle. In contrast, the outer eyebrows barely move or are even pulled down. The corners of the mouth droop down and outwards which accentuates the centre of the lips lifting into a modest pout. Motionless experience of failure, coupled with the slow blood circulation, makes breathing shallow. The deflated lungs often bring the posture of the body to a slump with the head hanging forward. Deep breaths are taken periodically that lift the torso, head and shoulders before the air is released with a big sigh that drops the head and torso back down. Just existing can feel like a struggle. Big sighs, an unhappy face, lethargy and sedateness are the hallmarks of despair.2
People who promise false hope order despair for those who believe them.
Lethargy is an implicit part of despair. The intensity of the lethargy is related to the significance of the lost hope, the degree of stress it causes and the ability to cope with the fallout.
Positive emotions biologically and psychologically function as a buffer to cushion the negative effects of despair.3 Hopes that come true satisfy people on a deep level; they bestow confidence, a sense of self-control, an interest in life, and a positive mental attitude that lasts a long time. So hopes can inoculate people against depressive experiences just like despair. Everyone has hopes and expectations. Mood is deeply affected depending on which hopes are coming true and which ones are being lost. Temperament is possibly influenced too, for despair relates to issues of paramount significance to a person’s life. Although the expressions vary with intensity and duration from person to person, extreme fatigue, drowsiness, and apathy are all common to serious cases of despair.
Despair encompasses physiological and biological depressive feelings, heart-ache, and psychological disarray. The cascading psychological fallout goes deep and wide through cortical and sub-cortical neural networks that make people feel psychologically traumatised and perhaps physically ill. Even though despair has a distinctive demeanour, lost hope is often not recognised as the cause. The loss of interest and vacant staring into space are not attributed to the instinctive unconscious efforts that are trying to make sense of the loss.
Sudden feelings of unimaginable loss and a devastating lack of direction in life are experienced in serious episodes of despair. The mind vacates conscious activities and interests. It instinctively redirects into deep unconscious thought. The body is put into a physiologically depressive episode as the mind tries to set a new direction for life that is adjusted to account for the recent devastating news. At face value, people may look absent minded and stressed. This is the outer materialisation of internal chemical reactions created from hormones and neurotransmitters flowing through the bloodstream and affecting nerves with electrochemical transmissions. The process slows people down and makes them feel heavy and biasses their thoughts towards introspection. People are rendered inactive whilst subconscious brain activity is accessing a myriad of possibilities and implementing the best way forward. All of these things often happen without people knowing much about the experience – knowing only that they feel deeply sad and lethargic and have no interest in anything.
For example, chronic mental stress involves many brain systems that include the neo-cortex, limbic system, and hypothalamus. The experience includes producing too much of a certain chemical (calcitonin gene-related peptide or CGRP) that reduces people’s biological ability to fight infectious agents, and thus it reduces people’s immunity to an array of different illnesses.4 Depressive emotional conditions pacify people psychologically, neurologically, and biologically. The more intense the condition becomes the more compromised people become, and the more difficult it becomes to function (see Stress).
The unhappy looks or sad body postures are a surface indication of an inner turmoil that is often overlooked and/or verbally unexpressed. This can lead to underestimating the significance of what people in deep despair are experiencing.
It would be very difficult for anyone to suggest, let alone prove, that despair alone is what causes people to commit suicide. It is only responsible to note, however, that serious despair is a critical part of suicides. From a theoretical position, people that live entirely in the moment have little chance of falling victim to despair. They have no hopes that can be lost, but they also have no hopes that can come true to satisfy them. People who plan and endeavour to develop aims or achieve an imagined state of existence (such as in a relationship) are the people who are most at risk of falling victim to despair.
Dealing with the future is risky. Any imagined, hoped-for scenario brings potential issues of future despair. How much the imagined scenario means is precisely relevant to the intensity of the despair that could potentially be experienced. If people build their lives around an imagined future, when that future does not come to pass, they feel their efforts are lost and wasted. They may feel that they have fooled themselves and wasted years of their lives. In this respect, short-term hopes and plans are safer and easier to manage as they have less fallout or potential despair associated with them.
The devastation of despair can be harder to take if people have been constructing their lives around an imagined future with a person who then leaves suddenly and they realise the departure has been planned for some time without their knowledge. Not only do people feel fooled, but they have their plans broken into pieces, in moments, without any hope of getting them back. They could not see what was going to happen. They have to start over. The ex-partner is not shocked into despair though. They knew what was coming and had an exit strategy. The jilted are left broken in despair, experiencing the above reactions while they try to move on.
Bereavement almost always includes despair because of people’s assumptive view of the world.5 When people’s hopes are based on deep assumptions, they feel despair when those assumptions are proved wrong. Without realising it people naturally make tremendous assumptions regarding the lives of others who are significant to them. For example, people commonly believe and make plans based on family members always being part of their lives until they die in old age. They create an assumptive world to give themselves a working model of reality, so they can make long-term predictions and plans. When a person dies early, the hopes related to the deceased are also lost.
The more sudden and violent a death is, the more traumatic the psychological experience. Because there has been no time to reorder deepest plans, it’s more difficult to construct a narrative that makes sense of violently sudden events. When a death is traumatic, more time is needed to recover from the bereavement as the recovery is impeded by deeper, more complicated, despair.
Despair relates to any form of hope for an outcome that is lost, such as working towards a qualification and then for whatever reason failing to gain it or applying for a job, hoping to get it, and then realising that someone else got it instead. These can create episodes of despair in their varying degrees, yet because of the amount of relationships people have, whether they are work-related or social relationships, despair usually relates to people’s status with another person or group. After all, it’s people that can deceive and take advantage of circumstances, not inanimate objects. This is definitely where most of the despair or heart-ache happens in societies, and it’s common for people to react by avoiding future intimacy from fear of feeling despair again. Personal hopes that are entwined with another’s hopes can particularly leave people vulnerable to despair. Interpersonal relationships have many unpredictable variables. They are risky things in which to place hope, especially when those hopes are at odds with each other.
Hoping for farfetched dreams will become demoralising if the hopes are unrealistic. It is far more sensible to hope for what is realistic and have those dreams come true. Being able to tell what is a realistic goal, on personal and professional levels, is a very reliable indicator for psychological and emotional stability. This is not to say people should not reach for the stars, only that a realistic personal contribution and time frame should be included. The more unrealistic hopes people hold, the more despair they experience. To underestimate the effects that despair has on people’s overall mood is unwise as the results are serious, and often far more serious than people think and plan towards. People underestimate despair.
The loss of hope only has to be perceived for the biologically depressive effects to be induced and mood to be negatively affected. People’s physical wellbeing is relevant to their perceptions of loss and success. They are affected even if their perceptions are not true to reality. If people believe the loss to be true, they experience it as if they really did lose. Minds are the interface for subconscious recognition of reality. Neurotransmitter and hormone levels rise and fall to perceptions of reality and moods reflect these changes.
Despair is an implicit part of attachment theory – which has now amassed more than 60-years of empirical evidence.6 When babies become toddlers, they can move away from their parents, but they have restricted mobility. Part of their instinctive relationship with their parents at this stage is concerned with keeping their parents within a certain proximity. If the parent leaves, the baby will become distressed and begin to cry. Babies have hardly any understanding of time in the early toddler stage. They have no idea that their mother or father will be returning. Babies and toddlers instinctively raise their arms for comfort when they’re distressed. Without words they are saying, “Pick me up and hold me close; I’m scared.” The contact-comfort of a cuddle for babies and toddlers at this stage should not be underestimated for its significance regarding dispelling despair. The contact comfort of mothers’ hugs are proven to stimulate the release of potent anti-stress hormones and neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin, in their children. Keeping a toddler’s levels of despair low endows them with a secure personality. Cuddles are a primary way humans instinctively reassure their infant’s hopes, for cuddling brings toddlers out of despair (see Optimism).
If the baby’s mother (or primary caregiver) does not return shortly and comfort her child with a cuddle, the baby will experience despair with all of its physiological and biological consequences. If this happens repeatedly, the toddler’s memory of their parent will become associated with experiences of despair. If despair is experienced repeatedly in short episodes, the infant will develop an abnormal relationship with their parent and subsequently others in their teen and adult life. In extremely serious cases, when despair is experienced for long periods of time (weeks and months), the infant instinctively detaches from the parent-child relationship as if they had experienced a death and have entered the mourning process. The child’s instinctive behaviours, which are built on hopes of parental interaction, are lost. The parent is thus associated with despair instead of comfort.
All the depressive biological effects from hormones and neurotransmitters apply equally, if not more so, to the child’s more intense world. This is despair at an instinctual level. It has extremely serious consequences for the child’s psychological outlook because it creates anxiety-based cognitive biasses that have effects on attachment behaviour to others as they grow.7
Recognising consecutive experiences of despair is important as it can send people into a biologically depressed state. Despair is not just a mental outlook. When innermost plans are lost, deep psychological fallout cascades failures through unconscious neural networks, and this releases depressive chemicals into the bloodstream and onto nerves. Prolonged neuro-biological immune responses cause system-wide stresses that can accumulate to put people at higher risk of serious health complications as they age.8
As adults, people must struggle to reorganise and redirect themselves in the midst of the inner turmoil. It can be exhausting. Where hopes are concerned, it’s best to adjust them with the most realistic information to hand whilst keeping in mind the risk that will be taken. In this respect, having a few important hopes that are given the attention they deserve can be far more successful than having many. How many hopes can people realistically manage at any one point in time?
When hope is lost, however, all the evidence indicates that people who find meaning in a reconstructed explanation of what happened will adapt more positively than those that cannot or will not explain the situation.9 After all, this is what the emotion of despair instinctively motivates people to do by forcing them to ruminate on the loss.10
Accepting the experience of positive emotion when in a period of despair is difficult because positive emotions pull the mind out of analytical sad ruminations. This can be felt as if it’s a betrayal of the memory of who or what has been lost. Positive emotions will help with that rumination if despairing people can bring themselves to experience them. It is highly likely that positive emotion will only be experienced for a short time before rumination begins again. Nevertheless, brief changes in mental disposition and biological chemistry to a positive state will help buffer and alleviate accumulating stresses. The despair will still be sad, but people will feel less lethargic, so the whole process will be healthier than if there’s no brief escape from rumination.
Latin. Desperare = to despair, to lose all hope.
1. The action or condition of despairing or losing hope; a state of mind where there is entire want of hope; hopelessness.