The Effects of Despair

Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we discuss how despair invades us and why some feelings of despair are similar to feelings of chronic stress and depression. We also cover how despair might carry behaviors like increased appetite and heightened sugar consumption.

The feeling of despair is not just a psychological or mental process. In many ways, it invades the mind and body together.

To a certain extent despair is something outside our control. At least the onset is outside of our control.

Despair is something we feel is controlling us. We truly feel invaded by despair, that it has taken over our whole being, from a core sense of self to the minutiae of our responses. In so many ways, from lack of energy, to the spike of rage, to disrupted sleeping, to impulsive and destructive anger. It’s invasion is total. 

The somatic or physical feelings that come with hopelessness and despair can feel very similar to those associated with chronic stress and depression.

Despair has a host of associated physical sensations and signs. 

All of these responses are related to the maladaptation of the HPA axis and — previously discussed, and many of these will thus be familiar. 

In despair:

First, you may feel restless, an agitation or a sense that there is little or no control over anger that you feel. It may feel as though rage ignites frighteningly fast, and because of very small things that would not have seemed troubling in the past. Recall that for individuals who have experienced chronic stress or trauma, perceptions of stress or threat may activate quick, knee-jerk responses, as the entire HPA system is functioning out of balance and norepinephrine has facilitated quick attentional biases to threats.

 Second, you may have difficulty breathing, as though every breath is an effort. Sometimes breathing can seem both painful and suffocating. Again, recall that chronic stress can lead to maladaptive responses by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which regulate breathing functions. 

 Third, it may be hard to focus, concentrate, or make decisions. C

hronic stress often disrupts communication pathways between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions where we predict and interpret threats. More simply, accumulated stress disrupts communications between the elephant and the rider.

 Fourth, despair may make it harder to sleep (insomnia), or it can bring about the opposite, hypersomnia, when sleeping becomes an escape from painful reality. Both of these states can lead to constant feelings of tiredness and a lack of energy, as discussed in Chapter 13. 

 Fifth, you may experience a change in appetite with either over or undereating. In the experience of despair, a person may eat too little because eating is one of the few things that feels under your control. Choosing to eat or not to eat can be how an individual exercises whatever remains of a sense of control, as almost all other aspects of life seem outside of control.

Also, it is common to experience sugar cravings when feeling depressed or hopeless, because in such conditions, the body is under a form of stress. 

The consumption of sugar and sugary foods increases the production of glucose; in the short term, glucose can be harnessed to confront immediate stress by being directed to the muscles or other organs needed to mount a successful stress response, as discussed.

However, the consumption of sugar also releases dopamine—a hormone which is associated with feelings of anticipation, desire, and predicted rewards. In other words, in the context of depression, sugar may become a trigger for a quick feeling of pleasure in a context of relative numbness. Over time, the relationship between despair and food consumption may lead to “stress belly,” a band of belly fat that seems to appear out of nowhere because the body is too stressed to digest properly, and thus stores fat around the belly area as an emergency reserve.

Sixth, in the context of despair, you may experience crying spells and outbursts, often without an obvious reason. This can occur for a number of reasons. Recall that the brain craves closure–it likes to know all possible information and what might be coming next. 

Let’s go back to our example. The control tower of the brain constantly scans for causes or reasons behind all feelings. So, if you feel sad or depressed, and if no immediate causes are found in the external environment, tears may flow without apparent cause, as the emotion state still exists and occurs even without a clear reason in the brain’s interpretation. In truth, multiple experiences and memories may be causing unpleasant or depressed feelings, yet the brain scans the environment for immediate, short-term causes, and thus tears may flow without apparent cause.

Lastly, in feelings of despair, immune system function decreases. Weakened immunity means that infections and sickness may occur more often and last a long time. There may be hair loss and deterioration of the condition of skin, hair, and nails.

The physical symptoms of despair are diverse, and like chronic stress and PTSD, each person experiences despair differently, but in all cases, the feeling is often quite overwhelming.