I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life. At my worst, I struggle with suicidal thoughts. I’ve made plans and even attempts in the past. In honor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I’d like to share some practical exercises that help me when I am feeling most despaired.
Why? Because even with 33 years of therapy and practice, when it’s dark, it’s really dark and all that practice feels like it goes out the window. These are a few things that help me get through these times. I want you to know that you are not alone; you are loved; help is available.
Try and identify what has triggered your negative emotions. This can be difficult because often our emotional reactions have more to do with our past experiences than with what is happening in the present moment. But it is important to try to identify patterns. These thoughts and feelings often come at the anniversary of a traumatic event, a season of life, or a year. When I can pause and acknowledge a pattern, I can recognize that this feeling will come AND go. It will pass; better days are ahead. I can get through this. I can do my best to mitigate, set boundaries or avoid those triggering people, places, or things.
For example, if you find that you always get depressed after arguments with your spouse, you may need to work on communicating more effectively. If you find that you feel suicidal during the holidays, you may plan to avoid those gatherings and plan something you look forward to instead. By identifying your triggers, you can begin to address the underlying issues that are causing your emotional distress.
Make a list.
I am prone to fatalistic or catastrophic thinking. In other words, if I feel this way today, I’ll feel this way forever. Feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless, or worse is a recipe for suicidal thoughts. And, let’s face it, few things feel heavier or more demanding than motherhood. When I feel like this, like–where would I go? Who would understand? How could I get a break to reset? I’ve started to make a list. As close as my next-door neighbor, as far as my best childhood friend in France, and every space in between–friends from work, book club, and so many more, my most recent list came in at over 30 people. In the throes of despair, they don’t come to the top of mind. Keeping this list where I can see it helps, not only when I’m feeling depressed, but steers me back to love and belonging before I get there.
Talk to someone every day.
It can be tempting to isolate yourself when you’re feeling down, but social interaction is important for mental health. When I am struggling, I try to reach out to friends or family members–the ones from the list above–even if it’s just for a quick chat. Sometimes by phone; sometimes to be in nature and walk and talk; These friends love me and can see me at my worst and bring out my best. It’s unconditional and an affirmation of the value of my life. It’s worth living. This is my touchstone. Here, I am accountable to show up and be alive.
Focus on incremental improvement.
My current therapist had me do an exercise where I rated my level of satisfaction in each category of my life–friends, work, marriage, and parenting. Friendship was my highest. For those areas with the lowest scores, she asked, what would it look like to make them one point better–just one point! The agony of catastrophic thinking is that things feel all the way broken or all the way fixed. This is, of course, not rational or true. There’s lots of space in between and this exercise gives me the power to understand and influence the in-between. Here, I can move from feeling despondent to finding hope. This means taking a close look at the thoughts that are going through your head and asking yourself whether they are really true. For example, if you are thinking “I am a terrible mother,” ask yourself whether there is any evidence to support that claim. Maybe you are not the mother you want to be, but you certainly aren’t terrible. What could you do to make parenting one point better? Oftentimes, when we examine our negative thoughts closely, we realize that they are not based on reality at all. This exercise can help us to see our situation more clearly and respond in a more reasoned way.
Call for help.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts and regular therapy and intervention aren’t effective, call a crisis line. 988 is now active across the United States. This new, shorter phone number hopefully makes it easier for people to remember and access mental health crisis services. These trained, calm, non-judgmental professionals can connect you to help and resources in real-time. They can help you develop coping mechanisms and provide support when things feel too tough to handle by yourself.
If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, know that you are loved and you are not alone. These are just a few of the things that help me when I am struggling with plans for suicide. If you are dealing with similar issues, I hope these exercises provide some relief.