How to Survive Suicidal Thoughts


how to survive suicidal thoughtsThe standard advice you’ll hear if you express suicidal thoughts is to call a suicide hotline or check yourself into the hospital. Trained volunteers, such as those at The Samaritans, provide an invaluable service to severely depressed people who call or email them in desperation. But for some of us, suicidal thoughts can be present for many months or years, and we can’t hang out on a suicide hotline or live in the hospital psych ward indefinitely. We have to learn how to become our own trained professional who helps us tease apart our thoughts until we arrive at the truth that will keep us safe from harming ourselves.

The most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life is to resist taking my life in the midst of severe, intense, chronic suicidal thoughts. I try to remind myself every now and then that no matter what I do from here on out, I am already a success because I am alive. I somehow managed to resist the incredibly convincing messages of my brain — the forceful urges of my psyche — to make an exit out of this world. As I mentioned in another blog, not taking your life in the midst of intense suicidal thoughts can be like not sneezing when you have an urge. Everything inside of you thinks that disappearing from this world is the only way that the pain will subside, so you listen and follow the cues without thinking.

Suicidal Thoughts Are Like Hiccups — Symptoms of a Condition

I don’t like to write about my suicidal thoughts, especially as they are happening in the present, because I am ashamed of them. They don’t fit into the Zen picture that I am trying to create for myself — all the mindfulness exercises I do, the nutritious diet and yoga, and trying to live, without judgment, in the present moment. I’m afraid they mean that I’m not aware and grateful of all the many blessings in my life — which fills me with immense guilt.

But talking about suicidal thoughts saves lives. I know this. Because people realize that other good, grateful, Zen-attempting people experience them, too. The thoughts that try to convince you to leave this world simply come with severe depression. They are mere symptoms, like hiccups, of a brain condition or fragile chemistry that feels at times too painful to endure. Just as chills, nausea, and fatigue are symptoms of the flu — and you wouldn’t blame a person inflicted with that condition — the chronic ruminations demanding a fast exit from here are symptoms of acute depression and anxiety. They mean you are sick rather than “bad.” They are not an indictment of your character.

You Want Relief From Pain, Not From Life

The best thing I have ever read on suicide is called Suicide: Read This First on, hosted by Psych Central. The page has had over 23 million visitors, if that gives you any indication of how many people consider suicide. “Suicide is not chosen,” Martha Ainsworth writes. “It happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” It’s a simple formula that makes so much sense and puts things into proper perspective. She explains:

When pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. Suicide is neither wrong nor right; it is not a defect of character; it is morally neutral. It is simply an imbalance of pain versus coping resources. You can survive suicidal feelings if you do either of two things: (1) find a way to reduce your pain, or (2) find a way to increase your coping resources. Both are possible.

Ainsworth offers five important things to think about, like recommending that you delay your decision by 24 hours or a week, and insisting that people do get through this. She includes some great resources, including various articles, books, support groups, and websites that will help you feel less alone. Her third point involves a tweak to our thoughts that is life-saving:

People often turn to suicide because they are seeking relief from pain. Remember that relief is a feeling. And you have to be alive to feel it. You will not feel the relief you so desperately seek if you are dead.

Making that distinction has saved my life on countless occasions: I don’t want to die. I simply want a reprieve from my pain. I must trust that the relief will eventually come because all of our feelings and thoughts — and especially our most excruciating pain — are impermanent. They can’t last forever because nothing does. So taking our own life is a permanent action for a temporary problem.

Do the Thing Right in Front of You

During this past depressive episode, the suicidal thoughts have been incredibly intense — probably because I’m getting such little sleep, and sleep deprivation alters your perspective on everything. Recently while standing in line at the grocery store, I started doing “death math,” the kind of arithmetic to determine how long I have to stick it out before arriving at a natural death based on the average deaths of my ancestors. When I realized it was a good 40 years, I burst into tears in front of the cashier. I knew I absolutely couldn’t hang on for that long. In fact, I was sure I couldn’t hold on for one more day. I was filled with a crushing desire to be done right now, and that feeling of panic overwhelmed me: “How do I get out?” As if I were trapped in an airplane bathroom and the door won’t budge.

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t go on,” I said to myself. Every muscle and gland in my body tensed up as I continued to bawl my eyes out in front of this poor woman scanning my items.

Then I remembered something that a friend told me the night before: I don’t have to worry about making it through an entire day. Hell, I don’t even have to tackle a whole hour. All I have to do is the thing right in front of me. In that moment, it was loading some groceries onto the belt. That’s all. If I still existed once they were all on the belt, then my next step was paying for them and hauling them to my car. “Do the thing right in front of you,” she reminded me. “Nothing else.” Everything you need is in the present moment, she said.

Your Only Job Is to Stay Alive

“All I have to do is stay alive for this moment,” I said to myself over and over again as a kind of mantra as I walked out to the car with a cart full of food, trying to be grateful for the groceries but failing once again at gratitude. That was my only job — staying alive.

That’s the only job you have if you’re wrestling with the kind of intense suicidal thoughts that accompany severe depression. Your only responsibility is to keep breathing. One long breath after another. “As long as we are breathing,” explains meditation teacher and best-selling author Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, in one of his sitting meditations that I listen to every day, “there is more right with us than wrong with us.”

Your only job is to keep breathing, one moment at a time. You will eventually see that the painful thoughts, as convincing as they are, are a season and won’t last forever. Like all emotions and feelings — and everything in this life — they are impermanent.

Join Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Originally published on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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10 Responses
  1. Marci K

    Superb article. Insightful and very helpful.
    I am sorry that you or any of us battle suicidal thoughts.
    Thank you for expressing, sharing and giving what you do.
    Your work makes a huge impact on so many lives, lives that need people like you.
    Sincere gratitude to you.

  2. Lizzie

    Thanks Therese, I am with you as going through the same thing right now. It’s hard to explain the pain. When there is no release from it and it feels so lonely.
    Sometimes I can’t think of the pain I would cause if I committed suicide. Because I feel comotosed By the feelings. It holds me prisoner. Keep breathing Therese . Tell yourself when you see a glimmer of light that you are worth it. That all the people you help are still breathing. Little breathes untied are a strong force. Keep breathing Therese and I will too. Love and light to you. Lizzie

  3. Ed McCafferty

    Not a comment….a question.

    My question: If I’m receiving the ‘blog’, I have signed up as a member.

    I get so very much out of each and every one. Thank you. EMC

  4. theresa

    Thanks for the post and sharing. I am struggling with this as never before. It is overwhelming and nothing seems to make it stop. I can relate to the “death math”, I do it almost every day. I try to remind myself that my kids would suffer so much more than I am right now if I were not here for them. It actually helps and gives me the courage to fake my way through another day.

  5. Jane


    Thank you, thank you for those six little words: “because I am ashamed of it.” Something in me just melted, something about seeing those words lifted a burden for me…I thought, here is someone able to say that, put it out there, & stand by it.

    Even though I know better, a part of me is ashamed of…being ashamed. (Of…you name it, I can find a way to feel ashamed about it. And suicidal thoughts are the mother lode of all shame.) When I read your blog, a little voice said, “Ohhh, yeah that’s ok! You’re not alone, sweetie.” Even though we “know” stuff, somehow it’s that Ahhhh moment of physical relief that helps so much.

  6. Jeff Duggan

    Therese, you are more powerful than you realize. You, of all people, cannot sneeze. You inspire so many people with your heart felt writings, your personal experiences, the good and the bad. You provide hope for so many of us that the “storm will pass” and sunny days may lie ahead. Please stay strong; stay alive.

    1. Ron Lindsay

      Your piece on battling with suicidal thoughts has hit home very hard with me. I have been engaged in an ‘epic’ war with such thoughts many times a day for a long time. Each time I reach the same impasse – I am scared of dying but neither do I want to live. The torment and pain are too great, and so I’m trapped. I have been looking through your website for more than an hour and taken time to wrote a couple of comments. I just realised that it has been 1 hour of ‘staying alive’.Thank you.

  7. Sarah Hunter

    Thank you for admitting you have relentless suicidal thoughts. I’ve had them for so long but never encountered anyone like me until I saw you talk honestly on your website. I don’t know how you went public– I couldn’t do it. But knowing there are people like you and so many others like me came as a relief. But still my torment is there. I’m convinced we are all warriors for the strength we’ve had to employ to wage war against these thoughts that feel as strong as a tsunami to me; really I can’t believe I’m here. Every one of us fighting this invisible war knows we are the walking wounded yet we can’t complain of this affliction the rest of the world can never even see as a problem. I can’t understand this brain of mine. And I can’t digest many of the foods you say are essential like green leafy vegetables and seeds because I don’t have the enzymes to do it. But I’m alive tonight and my kids don’t know about my brain and that’s one more good day survived. I don’t have any girl friends now– two committed suicide– and it feels too lonely to go walking alone outside but some way I have to find the strength to rise like the Phoenix and do it. Thank you Therese you saved my life

  8. Cheryl K

    Found your site today…I just wanted to say thank you. The number of lives you’ve saved and will continue to save must be enormous.
    Thank you so very much for your honesty about your own experiences and willingness to help others through as well.
    Depression is such a terrible disease. It helps to know we are not alone.
    Keep fighting the fight everyone.