#suicide is now acknowledged as the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in this country
Great article by Frances Masters of Fusion Therapeutic Coaching Ltd. on suicide prevention.
How to stop suicidal thoughts before they stop you!
Peter looked to me like a broken man. His eyes were shadowed. He was pale and gaunt, like he hadn’t been eating properly. He sat and stared at the ground, seeming to have too little energy to raise his head and meet my gaze.
‘I feel like ending it all.’ he finally said. Paul spoke in an unnerving, detached voice. Although he was physically present in my office, he seemed emotionally absent. ‘What’s the point in going on?’ he whispered ‘I simply don’t see a future worth living.’
I sat quietly for a while. The silence hung heavily in the air. Whatever I responded to Peter’s statement needed to reflect the gravity of what he was saying.
‘Peter,’ I said ‘Do you really want to be dead forever, or do you just want the pain you’re going through to go away?’
Life was good
Last year, Peter was flying high. As a top executive for a large PR company, he travelled the world, flew business class, stayed in the best hotels and was respected by his peers. Then, unexpectedly, he got made redundant.
He was devastated. His life began to unravel. He couldn’t sleep, concentrate or function at home. His GP gave him antidepressants and he began to drink heavily. He felt he had lost the thing most important to him in the whole world and simply couldn’t imagine a life without the job he had enjoyed so much since he left school.
I recognized immediately that Peter had been emotionally hijacked by the trauma of losing his role at work and the self identity and status that went with it. He was now in a dangerous mindset. I would have to act quickly to help him understand why he was feeling suicidal right now; what he could do to stop thinking this way, and how he could begin to take back control of his mental health.
Danger: Why suicide can seem the only option
More men die in the UK every day as a result of suicide than road accidents and assaults combined. In 2017 there were approximately 5,821 registered deaths by suicide in the United Kingdom. That’s an average of 16 suicides per day and suicide is now acknowledged as the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in this country.
If you feel suicidal like Peter, you need some critical information about emotional highjacking and, even more crucially, you need an effective tool for switching it off.
Knowledge is power and puts us back in control. To begin to understand the dangerous mechanism of emotional hijack, we need to look at how the human brain evolved.
The evolution of the human brain
Millions of years ago, at the dawn of our evolution, we had simple reptilian brains that controlled basic instincts to breath, eat and reproduce.
As we evolved into mammals, we developed another layer of brain material known as the limbic system or emotional brain and from here emerged the emotions that became important drivers for our survival. Some of the most powerful human emotions are love, hate, anger and fear.
We developed the ability to feel love which became useful in forming social bonds. If we felt love and connection, we would not abandon our offspring but rather nurture and feed them, ensuring the survival of the next generation of the group.
We experienced hate and anger; so that we would have the ability to fight or kill if our own survival depended on it, or the survival of our offspring.
And we developed a sense of fear so that we knew when to run away!
As the human species continued to evolve, the neo cortex developed as another layer of brain. This is the rational, logical, thinking part of the human brain and the part that truly separates us from the animals. It’s the brain area associated with our higher intelligence and the problem solving part of the brain which gives us the ability to take a psychological step back, play the film forward and back to see context with all the options and the areas of grey.
Most of the connections from the emotional brain to the neo cortex are on the right side of the head and most of the connections to the rational brain are on the left. So, very simply put, we have a brain of two halves; emotional on the right and rational on the left.
The real reason why we often act in an irrational way is that our two brain hemispheres; the emotional and the rational, are always locked in a battle for control and they experience the world in two very different ways. But here’s the key information that I needed Peter to understand:
#1: Big emotions switch off rational thought
High emotion is able to switch off the rational brain very quickly. This has to be so to allow you to react quickly to preserve life, if necessary. If faced with a wild animal ten times larger than us, or perhaps more likely these days, a bus speeding towards you in the road, you will automatically run or jump out of the way without thinking. There is simply no time to make a list of all the options in a fight or flight situation.
#2: Big emotions make us stupid
The emotional brain can only see the world in very black or white terms. It’s ‘stay or go’, ‘fight or flight’, ‘everything’s ok or everything’s not ok’. It should not be surprising then that, the more emotional we become, the more stupid we become. However, for our survival, the emotional brain has to retain the ability to hijack the rational brain. Think of the bus running towards you in the road.
So when we become caught up in our emotions, we actually become very stupid because we have lost the ability to step back to see the all the options or grey areas and everything is seen in black or white terms. Either everything is alright…. or everything is all wrong!
This explains why extreme emotional hijack leads to suicidal thinking. We can think ‘I can’t live like this……. so the only solution is to end it.’
In that moment, the neo cortex; that part of the brain which would say ‘hang on; there must be other solutions if you think about this or talk it over with someone,’ is suppressed. It turns out the old-fashioned term used in the coroner’s courts of the past ‘acted whilst the balance of the mind was disturbed,’ was surprisingly accurate. The scales of the human brain can be easily tipped off balance. For our survival mechanism to stay in place we must retain fight or flight, but it is not an appropriately response to the loss of a job or even a relationship.
What to do to stop emotional hijack
It is clear then, that we need to be able to switch off extreme emotional hijack and stop this dangerous mindset in its tracks. The answer is found in a simple parasympathetic breathing technique generally referred to as 7-11. I would have to teach it to Peter straight away… but Peter was resistant. At least I had his attention. He was more animated now and more engaged with what I was trying to explain to him.
‘Breathing? he said ‘I do it all the time! What’s so different about 7-11?
And this, word for word, was my response:
‘The reason 7-11 is so effective is based in how the autonomic nervous system works. When you breathe in, you activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system known as ‘fight or flight’. It is more of an effort to breathe in so, when you breathe in, you tense.
When you breathe out, you engage the parasympathetic nervous system known as ‘rest and digest’, so you have a feeling of letting go.
If you continue for five or ten minutes and engage a breathing pattern of a longer out breath than in breath, you cannot help but start to relax. You tap into the body’s innate ‘relaxation response’. If you also count while breathing the effect is even stronger as the rational brain is engaged by the numbers. This quickly has the effect of lowering emotional arousal and switching off that dangerous all-or-nothing thinking style of the emotional brain.
Try breathing in to the count of seven and out to the count of eleven or engage whatever count feels comfortable for you. As long as the out breath is longer it will work. Practising this simple breathing technique regularly establishes the ability to relax whenever you choose so that you can take back control whenever you need to. It really works well but, like any technique, it improves with practise.
Regular practise strengths the muscles of the mind just like going down the gym strengthens the muscles of the body.
For you, Peter, I recommend five minutes first thing in the morning to help you start the day calmly, five minutes last thing at night to help you enjoy deeper sleep and five minutes at any point during the day whenever the emotional temperature starts to rise. Simply stop, count and breathe whenever you need to.’
Peter got it. He could see how the real him had been hijacked by his emotional brain. We worked on learning the breathing together and, by the time he left my office, he was a lot calmer and thinking more clearly. He started practising the 7-11 breathing technique several times a day. More importantly, he was relieved to have been given a powerful mind management tool that he could work on himself.
Before long, Peter felt he was back in the driver’s seat of his life and, once he was thinking clearly again, he re engaged his neo cortex again to do what it does best…solve problems. We started to look at his choices and what he wanted to do with his life.
The 7-11 breathing technique certainly helped him stay focused when Peter went for his next interview.
He got the job!