5 things you need to know when suicidal thoughts kick in
Recent events have brought painfully into focus the kind of desperation and powerful emotions that can lead people to take that most desperate of steps - to end their own life. But what can you do if you find yourself feeling that way? And how can you support someone else you fear might be considering suicide? Here are 5 things you need to know when suicidal thoughts kick in:
1 - Things are unlikely to be as bad as they feel
Suicidal feelings occur when your brain is overwhelmed by powerful emotions. These could be triggered in the moment, by something intense or distressing, or by memories triggering something from your past - or it may be things that have built up over a long time and suddenly flare up to feel unbearable. Whether it is fear, anger, remorse, regret or frustration - these emotions are sufficiently intense that they triggered what is supposed to be a protective feature, where your rational thinking brain is switched right down, and your basic instinct brain takes over. Its a kind of ‘life or death’ survival mode for your mind. What this does is three things, primarily. Firstly it makes it very hard to think things through clearly. That includes your ability to problem-solve - to look at a tricky situation and come up with possible solutions or things you could try. So things feel a LOT more hopeless than they actually are. Secondly, it reduces all of life effectively to binary states - by that I mean black or white, one thing or another situations. It is about your brain trying to simplify your decisions. What this means though is that things feel like they are all one thing or another - people are either on your side or against you, you have either succeeded or totally failed, life is either worth living or not - and because things are rarely clear cut enough to be all good, the risk is that they feel all bad. And finally, therefore, it can feel like the ONLY solution to get you out of this horrendous place you feel caught in is to end your life. Even though - vitally - that isn’t true.
2 - Things will almost definitely get better
Those powerful emotions that trigger suicidal feelings are awful, horrendous and desperately hard to bear - but the reality of them is that they do not really last forever. They may feel utterly dominating in the moment they flare, but just as they can be triggered suddenly and painfully, they can also resolve. But they also trigger a further psychological nasty trick - because of the way memory works, it becomes much easier to bring to the front of your mind any other times you have felt the same powerful emotion. This memory bias can leave it feeling like your whole life is dominated by this awful feeling - bringing emotions like hopelessness and despair flooding into the mix. But again it is not reality. It is not as bad as it feels.
3 - Ending your life is not the simple solution it might feel like
The final trick your mind plays on you when suicidal thoughts kick in is that because of the black and white way your thinking is being limited, it can feel like a wonderfully simple solution. Many people talk about suicide as wanting to sleep forever and never have to wake up. It is really important you recognise that isn’t reality. Suicide is many things but it certainly isn’t a simple solution. You cannot be sure that things will go how you have planned - even that you will be successful rather than end up in an even worse situation. In fact, probably the only certain thing about suicide is that if you succeed, it is permanent. You cannot change your mind, or snap back into life, no matter how awful the impact. It is the one decision you may never be able to undo, no matter how much you want to. And the truth is, you may wish you could. Many people who have not succeeded in suicide attempts admit, either directly afterward or weeks and months later, that they are desperately glad they did not succeed. The desire to end life is one that stems from a moment of desperation. Most people, given the choice actually long for a way to continue living, but without what feels like unbearable pain. This is a much better thing to push for and it is something you SHOULD fight for - and get help fighting for.
4 - There ARE other things you can do
Suicidal feelings are triggered when we feel trapped. When it feels like there is nothing we can do. They’ve been described as like the cry of pain made by an animal with its foot caught in a trap: not designed to be functional, just the cry of desperation when you feel like there is no escape. But this is not the truth. There are other ways out of your situation. It may be really hard to find them. They may not feel very appealing. Each may feel impossible in the moment - but there are other things you can try. Remember though that the time you are feeling suicidal is not the time to try to analyse them because your brain simply won’t be up to it. It will simplify things into that black and white over simple version of reality: so a solution (if you can think of any potential ideas in your emotion fogged brain) will feel either possible or impossible (guess which one most will feel?). And the nuances are lost when your mind narrows like that - so it feels like what you need to do is solve the entire awful situation: go back in time and make a different decision, change something about yourself or the life you find yourself in or remove certain people from your story. But it isn’t that simple. There are many steps to your solution - to the successful working through of your story, integrating this awful difficult episode into the rest of a bigger better story. And you do not need to find some kind of magical solution that gets you to this end point. you just need the next step.
5 - The first step might be smaller than you think it needs to be
So - what do you do in these worst of moments? Well, first of all, recognise they are not as unusual as you think. And you are not the first person to feel like this (and you won’t be the last). In fact, more people than you would think have felt like this. People you would never expect or guess have felt like this - and got through it. People you know, good mates, maybe even family members, leaders - even in church - have experienced suicidal feelings. Because they are triggered by intense emotions and pain (emotional or physical), more people than you would think have experienced them - albeit fleetingly. Studies have found that well over half of adults admit to having experienced at some point thoughts of ending their life. The figures get less if we ask how far they got beyond that point - but it turns out human minds trigger suicidal thoughts more than you might think - we just don’t talk about it.
Secondly, therefore, what we need to do is something simple: something to get through this moment in time and make yourself safe. This moment is ALL about self-nurturing and self-care - looking after yourself and doing something kind and gentle. It is about SHORT TERM management - so try to avoid thinking about longer-term things or anything beyond getting through this moment. The rest of life and the world can wait.
You might find it helpful to think about three things when your emotions flare up like a blazing fire - like putting ICE on a burn …
I is for INTENSITY - and right now the intensity of your emotions is massively unhelpful. They are beating you up right now and they are SAVAGE. The most helpful thing you can do is anything that will help to reduce their intensity. This might be about distracting yourself - try putting on the TV, playing a video game, pick up a musical instrument, do some craft, anything that fills your mind with something else. Or, something that relaxes you and drops the physiological stress level in your body will help. Think about spaces, places, and activities that soothe you - physically relaxing things like taking a bath, curling up in bed or lighting the fire and getting warm and comfortable, or emotionally comforting things like lighting a candle, wrapping yourself up in something warm or someone who will give you a long hug (without the need to chat or say anything - this isn’t the time for that!). If all else fails research has shown us that exercises that calm and deepen your breathing are some of the most effective ways to drop your emotional stress level - so you might find learning breathing techniques useful for these moments - but if all else fails we know singing or humming has the same effect, so try putting on a soothing piece of music and humming or singing along.
C is for CONNECTION - when our emotions feel this strong and our mind closes down one of the most unhelpful things that we instinctively do is self isolate. We hunker down, batten down the hatches and retreat to safe space - but often because we feel we cannot communicate, that space is on our own. And solitude can be a good thing - but when feelings get as painful as this, we often need someone to be with us to help keep us safe, but also to connect us with the bigger reality that it is too hard for us to believe in in the moment. Think about how you can connect with someone - it definitely doesn’t need to be (and probably shouldn't be) for a long in-depth chat about your situation (which almost definitely you won’t be able to face right now). Is there someone who will just come and be in your pain with you, saying nothing but sharing with you? You could do something together to distract you, sit and watch TV together or just have the comfort of them being in the same space as you. Or it may be that there is someone you can just ask to help distract you. One of those amazing friends who will inane chat about nothing when you most need them to - or even make you smile against the odds. It doesn’t have to be in person as a first step - try a text to reach out and see where you can go from there. If you cannot contact a friend or family member, there are helplines you can contact just to bring you out of that isolation. Call one. If you are in contact with your mental health team they may have a crisis line you can call. The golden rule is this: make sure SOMEONE knows how you are feeling.
E is for EXHAUSTION - no one thinks clearly when they are exhausted, and we know suicidal thoughts are about a mind at the end of its tether. Sometimes the only thing you can do is get some rest. Because a lot about how bad you feel right now is overwhelm + exhaustion. And that is never a good place to make any decision from. Particularly one you can never take back. Now, this may well be about getting some sleep - and that is generally a good thing. But the most important thing is that you give your brain a rest from stimulation and demand - so it doesn’t need to be sleep, and if your emotions are very intense right now you might feel you could never sleep, so don’t put that pressure on yourself. Think simple: think WARM, QUIET and DARK. Not pitch black, just not in bright glaring light!! Basically, you are aiming to create a cocoon space you can be in to recuperate and recover from the things that have bombarded you and left you feeling so swamped and out of energy. The Danish art of hugge is helpful here, capturing so well the way spaces can become soothing and nurturing so think about what you could do to create that and take some time out.
What about the Bible?
Suicide is a human emotional state, so we'd expect the bible to mention it - and it does! In fact there are more examples of people in the Bible struggling with thoughts or feelings of ending their life than you might expect or realise. In fact if you find yourself experiencing this you are in good company. Try reading the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18, or look at Psalms like Psalm 88. Many of our heroes of faith, and people the bible lists as great leaders and people of God we should look up to had moments when they felt like they might not be able to continue. There is life and future to be lived after suicidal thoughts. Give yourself the chance to experience it.
Right now ...
With so much in the press it can feel like suicide really might be a solution to something - helping someone be better understood, triggering sympathy and care, changing things. Remember that person is no longer here and cannot experience any benefit from any of those things. It is not the solution it might feel like it could be. Protect yourself: try not to read too much about someone else situation and avoid obsessing over what has happened or the endless speculation and tributes it triggers. This story is not your story. Yours is still up for grabs: still being written. Fight for a better ending.
These steps are about short term management of the feelings that can leave anyone feeling suicidal. And this may be all you need: a shocking proportion of suicide attempts are made in a moment of impulse and not planned or pondered longer term. But it is really important to recognise suicidal feelings as what they are: signs that right now something or things in your life are pushing you beyond your ability to cope on your own. Suicidal thoughts are nothing to be ashamed of or that you need to keep secret. They are a sign that you need some help. So outside of all these things, make sure you reach out to someone who can help. Call one of the numbers listed below (this may be something you do another day when you are not feeling as bad, or something you get a mate or family member to help with), go and see your GP to chat about how you are feeling or contact your mental health team to ask for more support.
Remember you are NOT alone in feeling like this. Others have been there, made it through, and are experienced in helping people caught in the middle of this stuff. Here are some helpful numbers you might want to call (or text, or email …), or websites to look at:
The Samaritans https://www.samaritans.org . Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 - and it is free (and won’t appear on your phone bill). You can also email email@example.com (someone will reply within 24 hours and getting your feelings out into an email might help in the meantime - sending it can feel like you have literally got things out of your head and help you calm down).
Papyrus https://papyrus-uk.org is a bunch of people passionate about supporting children and young people struggling with suicidal thoughts. Info and advice about how to manage suicidal thoughts plus a helpline - 0800 068 4141 for calls or 07860 039967 for texts, open 9am-10pm each weekday and 2pm-10pm weekends/bank holidays or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The NHS website (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/suicide/) has further advice and links for those struggling with suicidal thoughts including some additional contacts for more support.
REMEMBER - if you feel your or someone you love’s life might be in danger, and DEFINITELY if you have done something that might seriously harm you like taken drugs, medications or significant amounts of alcohol, you can call 999 for an ambulance or go/take them to your local A&E department.