One of the effects of surviving trauma can be suicidal thoughts and feelings. It can be hard to speak about them, because people often respond with judgments and panic, even if there is no plan to carry out any suicidal actions. This article explores some of the many reasons for suicidal thoughts and feelings, offers some tools, and encourages acceptance rather than self-judgment when those thoughts and feelings arise.
If you have a plan
If you do have a plan to carry out suicidal actions, please read Thinking About Suicide? Read This First. Reach out for help! Call a suicide hotline such as 1-800-SUICIDE, or your local emergency services at 911. You deserve help, and you deserve to live.
Clinical depression and SAD
Clinical depression, biochemical imbalances, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can cause suicidal thoughts and feelings, but are beyond the scope of this article. If you (or the people around you) suspect that you might be clinically depressed, please seek out professional assistance. In addition, the reasons and tools below may also apply to your situation.
Even without plans to act, it is helpful to break isolation and tell someone about how you’re feeling. Whether you tell a professional or a friend, choose your supporter carefully, since some people may be required to report your disclosure, and others may be emotionally unprepared to handle the conversation.
If you are having suicidal thoughts or feelings, you may be responding with your own judgments and panic. It can be helpful to make room to simply notice the thoughts, and the circumstances that surround them. Take a breath. Notice any sensations in your body. Are there any patterns that emerge? Perhaps the thoughts come at around the same time of day, or around the same activities, or after seeing the same people. Also notice what you do in response to the thoughts. Are some of your responses more soothing and helpful than others? Notice even your judgments and panic with gentle curiosity.
As you read some of the reasons for suicidal feelings and suggestions below, notice which ones resonate the most. Some of the suggestions may feel right for you, or you may think of other actions which would be even better. Notice the ideas that carry a sense of hope and energy for you.
1. Chronic pain, illness, and exhaustion
Sometimes, suicidal feelings are a response to ongoing pain and discomfort, either emotional or physical, or both. If you’ve been hurting for a long time, you may be worn out, and suicidal feelings are a way of saying, “I need this to stop!”
To do: Listen for inner demands
If you are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed to the point of suicidal feelings, make it a priority to get help. You deserve it! As much as you can, be a receptive listener to yourself, and also look for others who can listen to your feelings. Take those inner demands seriously, whether it’s for more time for rest, a change in diet, stronger pain medication, more emotional support, or permission to cry.
2. A code for shame
Have you ever said, “I was so ashamed I wanted to die”? Sometimes, the thought, “I want to die!” is code for, “I’m feeling ashamed!” Especially when shame is attached to the self (“I’m a bad person”) rather than to behavior (“I did something bad”), it can be overwhelming and unbearable. The shame is buried by unconsciously translating it into the thought about wanting to die.
To do: Try a new sentence
You can test this out by saying to yourself, “I’m feeling ashamed!” after you notice yourself thinking, “I want to die!” Does the new sentence ring solid and true, or does it seem hollow and false? If it rings true, try to remember what you were thinking and doing just before the suicidal thought arose and notice what might be triggering shame. With your gentle attention, the shame may lighten and dissipate. If the shame feels overwhelming, focus on your breath and on the environment around you. Remember that no matter what you have done or experienced, your core self is deserving of love and gentle care.
3. Reliving trauma
Sometimes, suicidal feelings are left over from a trauma where death seemed imminent. When defenses are overwhelmed, the body shuts down in shock, and isn’t present to notice that it survived after all. In an attempt to complete the experience, the nervous system returns to the moment of trauma, and thoughts and images about death keep arising.
To do: Gently and slowly work through the trauma
If you experienced a car accident, surgery, or other violent trauma, and you’re experiencing recurring suicidal thoughts or images, you may need to gently and slowly work through the trauma to reawaken and integrate the parts that shut down. It is strongly recommended to have someone knowledgeable about trauma help you through this, for several reasons:
- to help you go slowly enough to avoid retraumatization
- to help widen trauma-narrowed perspective
- to replace isolation with connection and support.
4. Threatened for telling
In cases of childhood abuse, perpetrators sometimes implicitly or explicitly threaten the child with death if she/he tells anyone about the abuse. This can lead to suicidal thoughts or feelings in response to remembering and telling about the abuse.
To do: Connect with your child self
If you notice that you feel suicidal just after disclosing, or even thinking about disclosing, some aspect of past abuse, you may be responding to old threats. It can help to connect with your frightened child-self, and gently explain that the abuser can no longer carry out the threat. It can also help to allow your child-self to express and release fear by drawing pictures, writing in a journal (perhaps with your non-dominant hand), or wrapping up in a blanket. Making an internal commitment to honor the fear and disclose the abuse only where and when it feels safe is also helpful. The fear may be based on the past, and it may also be a subconscious response to unsafe aspects of your present situation.
Safety and acceptance
The first priority with suicidal thoughts and feelings is to stay safe. Once you separate the feelings from any possible actions, approaching the feelings with acceptance can lead to a stronger connection with your inner self, and help you resolve the feelings themselves.