The Neuroscience of Desperation

In our patience we wait and hope in the Lord.  But without our eyes and heart fixed on our Lord, hope is easily lost.  Being hopeless often involves losing confidence, belief in the fulfillment of expectation, or the loss of trust.  The Latin root of desperation means to be without hope.[i]

Desperation is usually characterized by sadness or despair.  It can be accompanied by feelings of anguish, pain, and agony.  The sense of hopelessness can lead to a wild, reckless, pessimism that can move toward wrath and anger.  Desperation can be both extremes of the flight or fight response.  Hopeless desperation can also cause us to freeze and collapse.

Mentioned earlier was the calming role of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.  Especially in the event of trauma, the other branch of the vagus nerve, the dorsal branch gets activated.  When an event either is or seems so threatening that we become overwhelmed, it can cause the body to freeze and go into collapse.  The body becomes flaccid, heart rate slows, breathing is shallow, and we become disassociated with our executive function.  It is a state that can mimic death.  These two branches of the vagus nerve create what is known as the polyvagal theory developed by Steven Porges.  The ventral branch (at the front of the body) is activated when we are calm.  The dorsal branch (at the back of the body) is activated when we are so overwhelmed that the body freezes and collapses.

Desperation has negative effects not only for us, but for our children.  According to a 2018 review be psychologist Maria Gartstein and biochemist Michael Skinner, “when pregnant women feel more stress and adversity (as well as increased exposure to toxic elements like endocrine disruptors, alcohol, and tobacco), their children have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and negative emotions related to aggression.”[ii]  This phenomenon is known as epigenetics.  Genes can literally be turned on or off in utero as the baby develops.  Trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next even before birth.

Another area that prevents us from the hopeful expectation of our desires is constant busyness.  Busyness is of enormous opposition to patience.  Our world is extremely hasty.  We are invited to more, more, MORE in an ever louder drum beat.  The mantra that is screamed at us is that bigger and faster are better.  But in this state, we are constantly running on adrenaline.  This is the stress response.  Our body is made ready for fight or flight.  When we are constantly busy, we do not give our bodies the proper time to rest and recuperate.  We need to rest and recuperate.  Being amped up and loaded with cortisol is truly killing many of us. 

Irritability also leads to desperation.  Being annoyed or agitated are generally states where the prefrontal cortex loses over to emotional threat and an unhindered limbic system.  Rather than focusing on a larger or more helpful outcome, the passion of the moment can take control.  It can be a vicious cycle.  Remembering to turn down our stress response helps the prefrontal cortex and executive function regain control.  Irritability, annoyance, and impetuousness can also turn to hatred.  Impetuousness often implies hostility or hatred.  Hatred dampens our brain’s circuitry that allows for tolerance.  It also ramps up the motor circuitry of the brain as if to respond in swift action of retaliation.  The hatred and wrath of desperation can also turn inward including a sense of shame that manifests as real pain in the body.

According to the National Center for PTSD, in our country, about half of men and women face traumas.[iii]  Many adverse childhood experiences can also cripple people into adulthood.  In addition to personal trauma, there is much societal injustice.  People are born into hardship and adversity.  People are born into poverty.  People are born into the cycle of trauma and often traumatize themselves and others without even knowing the full extent of it.

Without help from many others, we can be tossed on the waves of the ocean where stressors keep us from utilizing our prefrontal cortex.  Without turning toward love, we can practice hatred and revenge.  If we do not practice the Way of Love then the cycle of revenge will never stop.  Sometimes not knowing why the world is as broken as it is can be difficult.  It can cause us to freeze and collapse.  Sometimes our expectations of God’s goodness do not match with the reality of what we see in the world.  This can be challenging, but ultimately, we can trust that our help and our strength is in God.  It is God’s will for us to respond patiently and with love.  We can be part of the change in the world.  This is God’s will for us.  And if God is with us, who can be against us?  If we rely on the precariousness of the world, we do not keep ourselves open to God’s steadfast assurance.  The world and the many things in our lives often seem against us.  If our minds are attuned to solely looking for reassurance from the world about us, we will be sorely disappointed.

Brené Brown in her book Rising Strong speaks to how when we are missing data points, we often fill them in with belief and fear to create a story in our minds.  A story based on fear and false belief is a conspiracy.  Many of us operate within our own conspiracies.  These can be against ourselves or against others.  And these are partly what lead us into desperation.  When we lose hope, it robs us of our joy.  When we lose hope, we often work to rob others of their joy.   There is always room for some sense of hope no matter how dismal the situation.

[i] “Desperation,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed February 20, 2020,

[ii] Tula Karras, National GeographicYour Emotions: The Science of How You Feel: 65.

[iii] “’How Common is PTSD in Adults?’,” National Center for PTSD, accessed January 2, 2019,