Manage Suicidal Thoughts

Medically reviewed by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk, PhD – Written by Joshua Beharry.

"Though It Can Be Tough To Be Hopeful, There Are Ways To Overcome Suicidal Thoughts."

Suicidal thoughts can be very difficult to deal with or understand. Sometimes they can be fleeting, but other times they can be stronger urges and fantasies that promise relief from seemingly unbearable pain.

Intense thoughts of suicide tend to occur for only brief periods of time, but we’re when caught in their grip, it can feel as if we’ll never escape.

We can think of experiencing intense suicidal thoughts like like riding out a storm. Even the most powerful storms don’t last forever, so if we can stop ourselves from acting on our most extreme thoughts, we will eventually move toward a less painful and depressed mood. Once the storm is over, we can more clearly see other options we have for improving our lives. 

Below are some tips to guide us through these difficult moments. 

1. Remove yourself from danger

The first things we need to do when experiencing intense thoughts of suicide is to get ourselves out of potentially dangerous areas or situations (e.g., waiting for a train, driving by ourselves, crossing a bridge, or being near guns, knives, or medications) in order to reduce the risk of acting on these thoughts.

2. Slow your breathing

Once we’re in a safe space, we can start to focus on controlling our breathing.

When we’re under stress, our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes quick and shallow. By slowing our breathing, we take active control to reduce our heart rate – and in essence, reverse engineer a sense of calm.

This technique can also help shift our attention away from suicidal thoughts. Here’s one way to try it:

  • Take a few deep inhales and exhales.
  • Try to breathe in for 4 seconds, then hold for 4 seconds, then breathe out for 4 seconds, and hold again for 4 seconds.
  • Repeat this sequence for as long as it takes to start feeling less overwhelmed (if 4 seconds feels long, start with 2 or 3 seconds).

3. Re-focus your attention

The goal of these strategies is to work toward shifting our attention away from the negative thoughts of hurting ourselves onto something else.

A. Acknowledge, But Don’t Engage

This strategy may sound simple, but it’s a very powerful technique that can shut down suicidal thoughts before they turn into a vicious cycle. It’s similar to ignoring a bully – the less we pay attention to them, the less power they have.

  1. Notice the suicidal thought
  2. Without getting upset or mad at yourself, acknowledge that you are having the thought, and then put it aside
  3. Re-focus on what you are doing
    • It can help to visualize putting the thought in a box and moving it out of your path to go on with your day.

By doing so, we are essentially saying to ourselves, “I’m thinking about ending my life. These thoughts are part of depression. I’m not going to engage with them. Instead, I’m going back to what I am doing.”

B. Use Your Senses

If the thoughts are too intense to get back to whatever we’re doing, using our senses can help us get back on track. Here’s a simple technique to try:

  1. To start, close your eyes for a few moments and then open them again.
  2. Imagine trying to write a scene recreating the environment you are in.
  3. Describe what you see in as much detail as possible – the colours, the sounds, the textures, etc.
    • Start with a general overview, and work toward finer and finer details.
    • The more senses you use, the more helpful it can be to shift your focus away from painful thoughts.

C. Visualizations

Visualization means trying to imagine things in our mind, in a controlled way, which helps block out suicidal thoughts.

  • Building off the controlled breathing idea described above, you can start by visualizing dots or numbers as you count your breaths – 1,2,3,4… 1,2,3,4…, or visualize your lungs expanding and contracting along with the rise and fall of your diaphragm.
  • You can also try imagining yourself in a safe and calming space, being with someone you love, or looking to your faith can also be helpful.

D. Grounding

Grounding works by connecting us to our physical environment and reminding us of exactly where we are in the present moment, which takes us away from our negative thoughts.   

Grounding is similar to using our senses, but places more focus on our own physical sensations and connection to where we are.   

A simple grounding technique is to focus on the parts of your body that are connected to the floor, or a chair where you are sitting. Feel the weight of your body and notice how the ground supports you. Try to feel rooted to where you are, strong in your stance, and take note of the sensations you feel. You can also do this while walking by feeling the ground under your feet, and feeling the textures of the ground.

E. Muscle Relaxations

Often when we feel overwhelmed, our muscles tense without us realizing it. Our shoulders or jaw may flex, or we may clench our fists. This is part of our ‘fight-or-flight’ response.   

Like controlling our breathing, muscle relaxations help us take an active role in relaxing the physical manifestations of our stress response, and tell our body that it’s okay to calm down.

  1. While seated or lying down, start at the top of your body and work your way down, relaxing each muscle group one-by-one as you go (e.g., face, jaw, neck, shoulders, back, arms, hands, legs, calves, toes). It should take around 15-30 seconds to go through each muscle group.
  2. If paying attention to your muscle group isn’t enough to reduce the tension, it can be helpful to tense that muscle firmly for 5-10 seconds, and then release it. For example, by making a tight fist, and then letting it go.
  3. You can also try using your hands to massage your muscles, like your shoulders, to further relax them.

For detailed walk throughs of the skills of “grounding” and “muscle relaxations” see our Mindfulness for Men Course.

4. Reach Out To Others

Reaching out to others is crucial. You don’t have to – and shouldn’t – try battling intense thoughts of suicide on your own. 

In order for people to be able to help, we have to let them know what’s going on. Other people can provide us with empathy, compassion, and support – all of which are critical for helping us feel like we’re not alone in our experience.

It’s incredible how just saying our thoughts out loud to another person can help take power away from these thoughts. 

  1. Contact someone you trust and can confide in, like:
    • A close friend or loved one
    • A minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community
    • If you want to talk to someone anonymously, you can also call a healthline for support.
  2. Think of what you need most:
    • To have someone to come and listen?
    • To get feedback on your interpretation of a situation or experience?
    • To help distract you from your thoughts?
    • To be close to someone you feel safe with and care about?
  3. Send them a message or give them a call to ask for support. You can say something like:
    • “I’m going through a rough time and could use some support, are you free to talk?”
    • “I’m not feeling fully in control of myself, could you come over and help me get through this rough patch. I feel safer with someone around.”

If the people you reach out to aren’t available or you want to connect with someone who has more experience handling these kinds of situations, try contacting a crisis support centre.

5. Remind Yourself That You Can Get Through This

One of the hardest parts of managing suicidal thoughts is not having the hope or motivation to employ the strategies described above.

Depression can rob us of hope. We may desperately want to reach out, but feel like it won’t matter. But we all matter!

Hope can come from knowing that others have felt the same way before and have been able to get better. They aren’t any better or different than us – we have the same capability to recover. As humans, we have an incredible capacity to heal.

We can’t let suicidal thoughts deprive us of our future – we need to give ourselves the opportunity to feel well again and live the rest of our lives being healthy and happy.

Next Steps:

How to Reach out in a Crisis

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