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6 Mins

Intrusive thoughts about suicide

April 18, 2022

Many of us will have had thoughts like ‘I can’t take this any more’, or ‘It would be better if I wasn’t here’. These can pop into our heads seemingly out of nowhere when we’re tired, stressed or feeling low. Sometimes they’re triggered by a specific problem or crisis we’re experiencing.


These are an example of what’s known as ‘intrusive thoughts’ – unwelcome thoughts that can come into our minds, without warning, at any time. They usually come and go, and we don’t intend to act on them. But they’re often repetitive, and they can be disturbing or even distressing, particularly if they’re about dying or taking our own life.


Intrusive thoughts are a normal part of life

Trying to explain intrusive thoughts is a bit like trying to explain daydreams, or our imaginations. People who have symptoms of anxiety or depression are most likely to have them, but they can happen to anyone. While harmless in themselves, they can have a negative effect on our quality of life, and sometimes affect the way we behave.


Problems can arise if we attach meaning to them, and worry about why we’re having them. We might think ‘Do I want it to happen?’, or ‘If I think about this a lot, does that mean it’ll come true?’.


The most important thing to remember is that thinking something doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. In fact, intrusive thoughts are often what we call ‘ego dystonic’: they’re the opposite of what we actually want or intend to do.


Passive suicidal ideation

There’s a big difference between thinking about dying or killing yourself, and actually being suicidal. We call this ‘passive suicidal ideation’, and it’s a typical feature of many mental health or mood disorders, but it can happen to anybody at any time.


The thoughts associated with suicidal ideation can come in various different forms. You might simply wish that you were dead, for example, or perhaps fantasise about steering your car into a tree. Many thoughts like these are fleeting, but for some people they’re a constant hum in the background as they go about their day.


It can be scary to have these thoughts, and it’s easy to end up ruminating on and worrying about them. You may even find that your behaviour is affected when you attach meaning to the thoughts, such as doing things to suppress the thought or seeking reassurance about it, or avoiding objects like sharp objects or trainlines. The important thing to remember is that they don’t mean you’re at risk of harming yourself.


Passive suicidal ideation is actually a normal part of the process of coming to terms with something sad, unsettling or difficult, or when you’re at a low ebb. We don’t like having to face unpleasant emotions, and our response to these feelings is to want to pull away from or avoid them. Our brains look for a way to do this – and not being alive any more is one way of escaping. It’s not a helpful solution, but it’s perfectly natural.


Get the thought out in the open. Thoughts about dying or killing yourself tend to go away on their own. Sometimes they persist, however, and this can be distressing and exhausting. Talking about them with someone can often help – they become less frightening when they’re brought out into the light of day.


Change your relationship with the thought. Rather than trying to push the thought away or block it out, it can help to consciously recognise and acknowledge it: “I’ve just had that thought again – and that’s all it is, a thought.”


Get support if you need it. If intrusive thoughts are making you particularly anxious, or causing you to feel down, online CBT could help you change the way you perceive and respond to them. Get started here.


If you’re particularly concerned about the thoughts you’re having, you could make an appointment with your GP to discuss the difficulties that led to them, and possible treatments.


IMPORTANT: Please seek help straight away if you believe you might act on the thoughts you’re having, or have made a plan to do so. Make an emergency appointment with your GP, call NHS 111, or contact your crisis team directly if you’re already with a secondary mental health service.  


Useful helpline numbers:

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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