But suicidal thoughts can also be most unwelcome. In such cases, you do not want to think of suicide. The thoughts still come. They invade. They refuse to leave.
So What Can You Do?
There are several paths you can follow if you want to stop thinking of suicide. Here are some of them:
You can learn to talk back to the suicidal thoughts.
You can distract yourself from the suicidal thoughts.
You can seek help, whether from friends, family, professionals, or others.
You can explore the possibility of medication.
None of these options is mutually exclusive. Each complements the other. Over time, I will write a separate post about each approach. For now, I will concentrate on talking back to suicidal thoughts.
Talking Back to Suicidal Thoughts
A central premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that people tend to equate their feelings and thoughts with facts. We rarely question what we think. So, if you think, “My situation is hopeless,” you probably believe 100% that your situation is hopeless.
What if it is not actually true?
There is an adage in therapy, one so popular that books have used it as their title:
“Don’t believe everything you think.”
If you think your life is hopeless, if you think things will never get better, if you think you deserve to die – whatever it is you think, if it causes you pain or imperils your safety, ask yourself:
“Is what I’m thinking or feeling a fact?”
Be honest with yourself. While it might feel true, is there any possibility that the condemning thought you are having is in fact false?
Often, you simply cannot know for sure that your thought is true. In these cases, it is helpful to remind yourself that your thinking might be wrong.
For example, sometimes a client will say to me, “I’m going to be alone and miserable the rest of my life.” Notice how different it feels to say, instead, “I fear I’m going to be alone and miserable the rest of my life.” One is presented as a fact, the other a feeling.
Another major premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that what we tell ourselves directly influences how we feel and act. So, if we change what we tell ourselves, we can also change our feelings and behaviors.
(A Few) Helpful Questions
Cognitive behavioral therapists have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of questions to draw from to help you tease out thoughts and feelings from facts. Here are a few important ones:
“What is the evidence that this thought is true?”
“What is the evidence that it is not true?”
“What is a different way of looking at this?”
Looking for the Other Side of the Story
Your mind might assail you with thoughts of all the things that are bad about you or your life – all the things you have done wrong, all the ways your life is wrong, all the reasons that nothing will get better.
Does your mind give equal time and attention to the qualities in you or your life that are reasons for hope? Focusing on your reasons for living or creating a hope box are ways to give equal time to the aspects of your life that can weaken suicide’s pull.
You may protest that there actually is nothing good or hopeful in your life. If you think of suicide, you are in incredible pain. That pain may be exacerbated by stigma, isolation, and self blame. Amid such suffering, it can be hard to find redeeming qualities about yourself or your life.
Remember, if you seriously consider suicide, it is as if you are locked in a totally dark closet. The closet contains tools and gifts and other resources. But you cannot see them. They are hidden by the darkness of depression or despair or whatever other state of mind has settled in.
Questions to ask yourself here can include:
“What strengths have I had in the past that I can call on now?”
“What has helped me get through hard times before?”
“What (or who) could help me now?”
“What are my reasons for living?”
“What can I do about the situation that does not involve hurting or killing myself?”
Talking back to your suicidal thoughts and your more general negative thoughts can help you build compassion toward yourself. In his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, the author, psychiatrist David Burns, writes that we all have a prosecutor living inside our head, and few of us have a defense attorney.
It can be hard at first to defend yourself. It might feel unnatural. The best way to develop a counterattack against the negative and suicidal thoughts is to ask yourself this question:
“What would I tell a friend or someone else I love if they were in this exact situation and were thinking of suicide?”
Tying It All Together
Chances are you would be much more compassionate toward a loved one than you are toward yourself. Ask yourself, what would it be like if you treated yourself the way you treat a person you love or care deeply about?
Even if you don’t stop thinking of suicide altogether, you can at least work to protect, soothe, and help yourself in the same way that you would for another person you love.*
© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com
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