The ABCs of Hope
by Greg Pacini, MS, LPC, CGP, CHTP
Holding on to hope can sometimes feel like holding on to sand in an open hand. And believe it or not, that feeling has a medical explanation.
There’s a beautiful saying about hope by Lin Yutang: “Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.”
Just as a path appears on a hillside when travelled, the science of hope tells us that a path appears in the brain whenever we repeatedly think or feel a certain way. In other words, if you often feel sad, or hopeful, pathways appear in the brain to support that sadness or hope. And the more you walk that path, the more clear the path becomes, whether a path of hope or fear.
The same thing happens at the cellular level. When you consistently think hope, love, or trust, a related cascade of hormones is released. These hormones contain neuropeptides that lock onto the surface of each cell. The more you hope, the more space the surface of the cell makes for the neuropeptides related to hope. Which means less space for despair, fear, or doubt. Your brain and the very cells of your body support you in whatever set of thoughts and feelings you consistently hold.
When you consistently think hope, love, or trust, a related cascade of hormones is released.
Hopeful people are hopeful at the cellular level, just as sad people are sad at the cellular level. This explains why hopeful people find it hard to stay sad and why sad people find it hard to stay hopeful. It takes a while to rebuild ourselves at the cellular level. So, how do we rebuild? Here’s a simple technique called “The ABCs of Hope.”
A Changing the human psyche begins with awareness. Awareness begins with attention. The first step then is attention to your thoughts. Every time you pass through a doorway, ask yourself, “What am I thinking?” You’ll quickly become aware of the predominant style of your thoughts. You’ll see that you generally have hopeful, loving, trusting thoughts, or sad, fearful, doubtful thoughts. If you notice your thoughts are generally hopeful, keep it up.
B If you are masking underlying painful thoughts, or if you notice your thoughts are consistently sad, fearful, or doubtful, then take step two and breathe. Seems simple, but the effects are significant. When you breathe deeply, you actually stop the hormonal cascade that releases the neuropeptides of despair, fear, and doubt. You, in essence, stop sending the brain and the cells the message to make more room for these difficult thoughts and feelings. You are beginning to close the hand, and hold on to the sands of hope.
C As you breathe deeply, oxygen returns to the brain, thoughts quiet down, and things seem less scary inside. At this point, you can activate the final step: compassionate change. Once you’ve given your attention to the difficult thoughts and have breathed deeply, it’s much easier to look on yourself with compassion and change what’s going on in your head and heart.
There’s nothing wrong with difficult thoughts and feelings. You’re having them for a reason. Something in life taught you to respond this way to difficult times and circumstances. It’s OK. These are compassionate thoughts about yourself. These thoughts produce love and trust in you. When you punish yourself for negative thoughts, you actually produce more thoughts that are negative.
What you want instead are thoughts that comfort and care for you. This is compassionate change. The beauty of it is that you are not denying the negative thoughts. You are actually acknowledging them, going through them, and coming out on the other side.
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Greg Pacini has over 30 years counseling experience, focusing for the last 20 years on the needs of survivors, their loved ones, and the medical professionals who serve them. To learn more about Greg, visit JourneyBeyondDiagnosis.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2012.