How To Survive Suicidal Thoughts, From People Who Have Been There
Surviving suicidal thoughts can feel impossible and never-ending. It’s so easy to get stuck in that dark hole and feel like there’s no other choice.
First and foremost, therapy and medication can be crucial for people experiencing these thoughts or other struggles — but what about when that’s not enough? What about the nights you spend lying awake in your bed, alone and in pain, while everyone else is asleep?
Knowing coping skills ahead of time is vital. They probably won’t “cure” your thoughts, but they can get you through. Here are some that may work for you, straight from people who have been there themselves:
Make a list of things you’d miss.
Sky Fisher, a writer, has survived suicidal thoughts for over 15 years. “One thing I did was make a list of all the things I was looking forward to that I would miss if I followed through with my plans,” she told HuffPost. “Things like my baby brother growing up, a concert I wanted to go to, going to a specific city or attraction I’ve always dreamed of … It really helped me to focus on the things I wanted in life and give me something to look forward to in the future when the current reality felt hopeless.”
Think of who needs you, like your pets.
Many people struggling with suicidal ideation may believe they’re a burden to others (and they’re not!). If this is the case for you, it may be helpful to think about who you help and who loves you, such as your pets.
“I think the number one thing that kept me here at the lowest point was having my two cats,” said freelance writer Jennifer McMorrow. “These two cats had only me in the world to feed them, take them to the vet and love on them.”
Remember that you only have to take things one day at a time.
Getting through the next moment, let alone the rest of your life, can feel incredibly hard when you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. But remember, all you need to focus on right now is this minute, this day. That’s how Liv Sturgeon, a psychology college student, has survived — realizing she just has to take it one step at a time, and remembering all the days she’s done so.
“Knowing that I’ve got through the darkest times in my life when I didn’t think I could gives me the hope that things will always get better, whether I believe it or not,” she said.
She’s found distractions and talking to friends particularly helpful. “I try to remind myself that there is more to me than my mental illness, and I deserve to be happy,” she added.
Try dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills.
DBT is a type of therapy you can do with a therapist or on your own — and it’s packed with coping skills to try. “DBT helps reduce the emotional intensity you feel in relation to everything that’s happening around you and inside of you,” said Sheila Houlahan, a producer, actress and suicide survivor. “While DBT doesn’t make something unpleasant stop, it did help me make peace with the unpleasant thing.”
These DBT worksheets have long lists of tools. Houlahan shared some of her favorites, too, such as:
Dunking your head in cold water.
The first skill she suggested is dunking your head in ice water — yep, seriously. “What I highly recommend is fill up a sink with cold water, put some ice in it, then take a deep breath and submerge your entire face, holding your breath for 15 seconds,” she explained. “By doing this, when you come back up, it actually slows down your autonomous system, which is going to make that cycle stop.” This activates your “dive reflex,” which slows your heart rate down.
Engaging in distractions.
If you’re feeling less distressed, she recommended distracting yourself. “Watch reruns of a favorite show or movie where you already know the plot,” Houlahan said. “Watch something you already know isn’t going to be triggering. This way, you can safely lower your emotional levels until you’re able to process it.”
For Lavinia, reading was a great way to get her mind off of her pain. “Every time I picked up a book or even listened to an audiobook, I found myself occupying a space between the pull of the real world and my imagined world of peace and oblivion,” she said. “My brain was entirely distracted, and whenever I feel low these days, I know that reading a book will plant my mind in a safe space.”
Other distractions include going on a walk, cleaning your room, relaxing in a bubble bath, watching your favorite TikTok, playing a game on your phone, painting and so much more.
Check in with friends and family.
That voice in your head may urge you to isolate. Don’t give in.
“Open and honest communication with trusted family and friends allows me to share my thoughts and feelings in a safe and accepting environment,” said Danny Mayberry, a combat veteran who helps others through the “1 Mile 1 Veteran” podcast. “My support system has come to understand that my depression, anxiety and suicidal ideations are not because of anything they may or may not be doing.”
McMorrow emphasized this tip, too, mentioning she reached out to friends who she knew had also struggled. “This can be really hard because it’s a time you want to detach, but I would always encourage reaching out to someone who knows those low places,” she said.
Move your body in an enjoyable way.
Exercise doesn’t have to be long, intense, outdoors or at a gym; it can be as simple as taking a short walk or stretching, and still be helpful. “Taking a walk — especially near water and watching the waves roll over the sand, I imagined my stress and anxiety rolling out with the tide — and enjoying different scenery helped clear my head and reminded me of how much I had to be grateful for,” said Monica Romano, a freelance writer.
Science backs up the effectiveness of moving your body. “Studies have shown the many benefits of exercise and the way it reduces stress hormones, like cortisol, and boosts feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin,” she added.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) go outside for your exercise, but still want the vibes of the outdoors, you can play a virtual hiking video on YouTube.
Plan a trip or something else fun.
What’s something exciting you’ve always wanted to do and could plan right now? This question helped Graeme Blair, a political scientist and associate professor.
“When suicidal thoughts were especially invasive, I had this longstanding idea, I think from being a teenager, that if everything got really bad, I always had enough money to buy a ticket to Fiji,” he said. “The idea of being able to leave behind whatever work and personal stresses and live on the beach was comforting.”
You could plan a trip or even a fun outing. It could be something you actually do later, or just a thought to get you through.
Some people feel comfort in closing their eyes and pretending they’re in their “safe place” — maybe a beach or friend’s house, for example — and envisioning what they would see, smell, taste, touch and hear. (Fun fact: This “safe place” tool is actually something people do during trauma therapy when they feel triggered or unsafe.)
Think about how your loved ones would be affected.
This one isn’t meant to guilt-trip you (even though you may have heard others say it in that way). It’s simply to remind you that even if you feel like a burden, you’re not. In fact, you’re more loved than you’ll ever know — and your death would affect people.
“The only thing that stopped me was the thoughts of my parents having to clean up the mess … and how that would be so unfair to my parents,” said Brett C., a combat veteran who asked to withhold his last name to talk about his mental health.
Katherine Glaser, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Tampa, Florida, has worked with patients who live with suicidal thoughts for over two decades. When asked what she wants people experiencing suicidal ideation to know, she said this: “The entire world would change if they were not in it. Everyone that they have ever come in contact with would be different if they were gone … Not many realize these implications.”
Some of her clients found that looking through pictures of family helps them, as well as emailing their therapist, getting out of the house and more. “Suicidal feelings do not last forever,” she added. “Help is out there.”
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.