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Understanding Suicidal Thinking & How We Can Help Ourselves

It can be very scary to experience suicidal thoughts, and even scarier to imagine sharing those thoughts with others. Our culture has not done a great job taking care of those of us who are living with these thoughts, but we can start to do better as we understand what drives our suicidal thinking and find more

helpful responses to this experience.

Although suicidal thinking does for some result in the outcome of death, for so many people, suicidal thoughts are not necessarily related to death or wanting to die. Pain is at the foundation of these thoughts for so many. Unimaginable pain that is so difficult to bear that dying suddenly becomes a viable option in our minds. In many cases, death is an extreme version of avoidance of this profound emotional, and sometimes physical, pain.

When we look at things like pain and avoidance of pain, we realize that these are such innate aspects of the human condition. We are all here because our ancestors had adaptable problem-solving skills in which they were able to avoid, and limit conditions and circumstances that increased the likelihood of pain. It is within us naturally to default to problem-solving mode and seek out ways to avoid and mitigate our pain.

When we’ve reached the point of suicidal thoughts, it is common for us to feel that we have exhausted all of our pain avoidance strategies, and this is the only choice we are left with. The overactivation of the difficult thoughts and feelings can lead to something called “cognitive constriction”. This is the narrowing of our focus to our unhelpful thoughts and feelings so much so that we cannot see anything else or allow any other perspectives or options to penetrate.

However, below, we’ll discuss how to work against cognitive constriction to help us not only manage our pain day to day, but also help us in those moments when we are most vulnerable to suicidal thinking.


Things we can do when our minds narrow in on the option of suicide:


  1. Ask yourself what you are thinking right now

  2. Is there any other way of thinking about this? (Even if you do not agree with it! – start exploring other ways that the situation can be viewed)

  3. Rephrase your thought to help you treat it for what it is – a thought! (not a fact)

  • Ex. Automatic thought - “It’s never going to get better”

  • Adjusted phrasing – “I’m noticing I’m having a thought that it’s never going to get better”

  • **Recognizing that this is a thought and not a fact may help momentarily widen our focus, invite us to consider other possibilities and take the pressure off of the situation


  1. Ask yourself what you are feeling

  2. Redirect yourself to asking what you are thinking about. It is easier to change thoughts than to change feelings!

  3. Consider if you can temporarily accept this uncomfortable feeling, reminding yourself that no feeling is permanent

  4. If you cannot temporarily accept it, utilize a distraction tool to help direct your attention away from the difficult thoughts and feelings

  • Opposite action (see attached worksheet in Clinical Resources)

  • Hold a piece of ice in your hand

  • Play a video game that you enjoy

  • Engage in physical activity (exercise, yoga, dancing, etc)

  • Call a friend or family member that makes you laugh

Practicing these tools for intervening when we are experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings, whether they are related to suicide or not, can be incredibly valuable to us in just getting through the worst parts of the emotional experience. Once we “ride the wave”, we are able to right our ship and get back on course.

*If you are finding that you have tried these approaches and you are feeling worse or still in crisis, know that there are other options for getting care. Here are some additional crisis resources to utilize if and when you find yourself in need of more support.

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - Call 988

Crisis Text Line - Text GOT5 to 741741 or Got5U to 741741 if you are a college student

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