Suicide Talk

Cognitive Deconstruction and the Lead-Up to Suicide

Cognitive deconstruction  - head filled with gears inside a bubble

I first learned about the concept of cognitive deconstruction when I reviewed Jesse Bering’s book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves. He wrote about it as a process of narrowed thinking that can occur leading up to a suicide attempt.

What cognitive deconstruction is

The American Psychological Association defines cognitive deconstruction as:

… a mental state characterized by lack of emotion, the absence of any sense of future, a concentration on the here and now, and a focus on concrete sensation rather than abstract thought. People may cultivate this state to escape from emotional distress or troublesome thoughts.

A paper published in Psychological Review states that a person who is suicidal attempts to:

… achieve a state of cognitive deconstruction (constricted temporal focus, concrete thinking, immediate or proximal goals, cognitive rigidity, and rejection of meaning), which helps prevent meaningful self-awareness and emotion. The deconstructed state brings irrationality and disinhibition, making drastic measures seem acceptable.

This sounds a lot like what I remember from my own state of mind prior to attempting suicide.

The survival instinct

Like any other creature in nature, humans have a powerful survival instinct that pushes us towards actions that promote self-preservation. It’s hard to tune that out even when it comes to activities that you want to do. I went bungee jumping once when I was younger, and it took me a while to let myself fall forward off the platform. My instinctive brain kept screaming NOOOOOOOOOOO!

At one point years ago, I contemplated suicide by jumping off a high bridge, but then I remembered the bungee jumping. I had wanted to jump then as well, but it took me a while to work up to it. I didn’t want to be in that position on a bridge where someone was likely to find me and interfere before I overcame that instinctive barrier.

Pressing mute

Even when the desire to die is intense, the primitive part of the brain is still doing a full court press toward survival. I suspect that cognitive deconstruction is a way for the conscious mind to press mute on the survival instinct. The mental rigidity allows for a single-minded focus on the most maladaptive coping mechanism there is. The restricted focus in time tricks the unconscious into viewing simple acts as they occur rather than registering the consequences.

A paper in Suicide Science says that cognitive deconstruction results after someone has come to perceive the self as unacceptable. Initially, the person will try to regulate the negative emotion that’s being experienced. When that fails, the next step is an attempt to focus attention on meaningless, simple stimuli. As the person moves further into a cognitively deconstructed state, they are no longer aware of personal weaknesses. Cognitive deconstruction is also associated with disinhibition and a depletion of resources for self-regulation. Focus narrows onto one path, and one path only.

What to do about cognitive deconstruction

Internal resources for self-regulation can be bolstered by mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, self-expression, and maintaining physical well-being. has a lengthy article on the subject.

It seems clear that a state of cognitive deconstruction represents a danger zone, and once we’re in it, it’s hard to get out. Perhaps the key is learning to catch the early signs that we’re heading in that direction, and have self-regulatory strategies available to help cut it off at the pass.

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

30 thoughts on “Cognitive Deconstruction and the Lead-Up to Suicide”

  1. Yes. I too keep trying to find a way to say simply that I’m glad you’re here Ashley without making it sound all about me. It’s hard to say I’m happy you failed so I get to read your blog. That sounds weird!

  2. Most interesting post, Ashley.
    I remember so distinctly when I parked alongside railroad tracks, I actually kept a log of times when the train passed. I have them written on one of my many journals.
    I was so close to the edge of ending my life, but in the back of my mind there was this thought of surviving such an ordeal of attempting suicide in that fashion. I guess that was my desconstructive state of mind working.
    Again, very interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

  3. This is very, very accurate. This is certainly what I experienced when I contemplated taking an overdose of pills three years ago. Something held me back. And I’m glad it did!

  4. I have dealt with suicidal thoughts but I never got to the point to where my mind only focused on the bad parts of my life. I would always think about the consequences of what would happen.

  5. Wow, this is WILD! There have definitely been times in my life when I was in cognitive deconstruction, but I am only now realizing it. Also – I am glad you DIDN’T jump <3

  6. The connection between cognitive deconstruction and suicide is fascinating. Your example with the bungee jumping was apt. I can’t—no, maybe I can—believe there’s a magazine called Suicidal Science!

  7. My nephew lost his life to suicide in July 2017. I will never really know exactly what the lead up was and what was/wasn’t going on in his mind the day of, and of course the moments before. I know that he had been suicidal many times before in his life, and had been hospitalized just the week before for suicidal threats. He somehow convinced the hospital doctors that he was OK and ready to go home. He obviously wasn’t.

    One can torture themselves wondering “What if I had called him moments before? Or my sister hadn’t gone to work that Saturday to finish up work. Would that have made a difference?” Then sometimes I wonder if he had shown clear signs of the intent weeks before, but we were all blind to them. The eerie part is that the last time I saw him, it was as if he was saying goodbye, but I didn’t realize that until after-the-fact. Had he made up his mind in some way? If so, was it sort of a type of autopilot directed to his ultimate end? And yet he did cry out for help, in a sense, that day for his last hospitalization. But did the autopilot kick in again?

    The scary part, to me, about suicides is that it all depends on a single moment, or at least scant minutes. Yes, depression can drag on and intensify, but the decision that takes a person via suicide is usually just in that moment. Your article does explain a bit about how the horrible end result comes about, ultimately.

  8. I had a few attempts. Last one I woke up completely emotionless. I still knew something was wrong and I went immediately to my GP that was my friend as well. If it wasn’t for my kids, I would have been dead now. Absolute no emotion, just 1 thought.. Kill myself. They admitted me in hospital. Year or so later been diagnosed with bipolar

Leave a Reply