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Thursday 8 June 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Aaron Favila
Opinion Imagining better days in hopeless times - tips for managing the stress of the world
Clinical Psychologist Dr Trudy Meehan has some practical ways to help us cling to hope in dark times.

WE HAVE JUST about emerged from two years of difficulty, stress and fear through the Covid pandemic, only it seems to have to turn to face the most horrendous and terrifying events in Ukraine with the invasion of Russia.

Both of these global emergencies have wreaked havoc, death and suffering to thousands of people. Both are harrowing in their own way, to live through and to witness.

As this global chaos continues, there is a multitude of tips and self-help tools that could help us all cope with it all. Staying present, being grateful, experiencing awe, getting enough sleep, and exercising would all help. But at this very moment, it feels disrespectful to the enormity of the suffering to think that any one small thing could help.

Conflicts of the past

During the Vietnam war, US President Richard Nixon dismissed anti-war protestors. He said, ” They’re basically idealists, turned off by the horrors of war on the television every night”.

We are all put off by war on our screens, and it is not ‘the weakness of an idealist’. It is a beautiful part of our compassionate human experience. When we witness unimaginable scenes of human distress, we can feel helpless and hopeless.

John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’ shortly after this statement by Nixon. When interviewed about the song, he said, “To do something is better than to do nothing.

john-lennon-imagine-mosaic-in-strawberry-fields-central-park-new-york-image-shot-082006-exact-date-unknown Alamy Stock Photo John Lennon Imagine Mosaic in Strawberry Fields Central Park, New York Alamy Stock Photo

We all have that choice in the little choice we have”. Lennon was onto something here; he described our experience of compassion and the desire to act that compassion evokes in us.


Compassion and empathy often get confused with each other. Empathy is the emotional experience of feeling another person’s pain when we witness them struggling. It activates the pain centres in the brain.

We can quickly get distressed and overwhelmed. It can happen in intense caring situations such as healthcare settings where it has been studied and labelled ‘empathic distress fatigue’. It can explain how many people feel when hearing bad news stories or seeing images of human distress on the screen.

Because we feel the other person’s pain, the boundary between the self and others is blurred. We get entangled in the distress and find it hard to soothe our emotions. We want to depersonalise, become numb, and look away.

Research has shown that the antidote to empathic distress fatigue is compassion. Compassion can be defined simply as empathy plus action to alleviate another person’s pain. The action part of compassion helps us decouple our emotional system from others and see that we are separate individuals. We do not have to feel their pain when we witness it.

Instead, we have the feeling of wanting to help. So, this is why John Lennon was right. It is helpful to us if we can act to help alleviate pain rather than just witness it helplessly.


Interestingly, taking action to help can range from helping practically (donating money, volunteering, activism, joining a political party, getting involved in sustainability and conservation, teaching our children respect), to doing a Loving Kindness Meditation (where you focus on sending love to yourself, people you know and those you don’t know or even like).

Even more interesting, you will be better placed to help practically if you do this type of meditation. Loving Kindness Meditation does not reduce negative emotions. Instead, it increases activation in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions like love, hope, connection, and reward.

Training your ‘compassion muscles’ provides a buffer against the negative ones so that you can be better motivated to help and not get overwhelmed by the distressing emotions. Suppose we can create a buffer of positive emotions with compassion. In that case, we can start to think about how to practically help and act in overwhelming situations.


When we feel the need to act, it opens space for purpose and meaning. Meaning can act as a headtorch in times of collective darkness. A personal light casting a small ray of hope. Viktor Frankl’s work on meaning was developed during World War II, so it perhaps has some relevance today.

A prisoner in four Nazi concentration camps, Frankl observed that the human spirit can transcend the darkest political forces when we can hold on to meaning. His work has been influential in psychotherapy and charts ways to find meaning in suffering. Purpose and meaning in life activate a part of the brain (ventral striatum) shown to positively impact motivation and engagement.

If we can find meaning and purpose, we are less likely to lose hope or motivation to act to make things better. What gives you meaning? Tapping into your meaning, will not only motivate you to act, but it might also reduce the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body.

Research has shown a correlation between activation of the ventral striatum, the part of the brain involved in meaning and purpose, and a reduction in cortisol levels. So put on your meaning headlamp in this very dark world to help you stay motivated to take purposeful action, reduce stress and keep hope alive.

Reasonable Hope

Reasonable hope is a kind of hope that is possible to access even when the loftier idealistic hope is out of reach. When you cannot access hope, you will likely categorise yourself as ‘hopeless’.

Family therapist, Kaethe Weingarten wondered if there was a different space that one could occupy, an area that bridged the chasm between hope and hopelessness. Her answer was ‘reasonable hope’. We generally consider hope as a noun, a thing that either exists or doesn’t. Weingarten argues that hope is a verb, something we actively do.

Reasonable hope is about acting and doing now, not waiting for some feeling to exist inside us. Importantly, it is not just an activity, it is a joint activity. Weingarten states that “I hope because we hope”, she calls for an understanding that we are all in this together. She appeals to universal collective humanity that we all need to thrive. Weingarten calls for small actions to be seen as beacons of reasonable hope that we collectively ‘do’ together.

During times of such global upheaval, we have minimal options for action. We need to redefine what we mean by action. Compassion helps us see the value of human connection and witnessing as practical action. If no one is alone, there is room and reason to hope.

Witnessing is hard. Suppose we can bear witness, take meaningful steps and hold compassion for ourselves and others. In that case, we can affect small but essential changes.

Imagine that, in a time of extreme societal darkness, the best way to support ourselves might be to lean into our common humanity, our collective suffering, and find meaning and purpose to take action to make things better.

Of course, ‘you may say I’m a dreamer’.

Dr Trudy Meehan is a chartered clinical psychologist registered with the Psychological Society of Ireland. She is a lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology and Health at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences. 


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