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Suicidality and Cognitive Deconstruction

Cognitive deconstruction: a thinking pattern that can occur in the lead-up to suicide - graphic of head dissolving

In Jesse Bering’s book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, he explores the mental processes going on in the minds of people who are suicidal. One of these processes is cognitive deconstruction, which I hadn’t heard of before. It sounded very familiar, however, in the sense that it’s something that I have experienced when I’ve attempted suicide, so I thought I’d explore it further in this post.

What is cognitive deconstruction?

Baumeister (1990) proposed an escape model of suicide that involved a chain of events leading up to suicide as a way to escape from the self and the world. The penultimate step before behavioural disinhibition is cognitive deconstruction. This involves concrete thinking and cognitive rigidity. Time narrows to the present and pushes the future out of mind, and there’s a focus on immediate or proximal goals. There is a lack of emotion, and abstract thought goes out the window right along with any sense of future. This cognitive state produces irrationality and disinhibition.

Schneidman (1990) included a description of a similar process, although with different wording, in his model of suicide. It included a “constriction of thought, tunnel vision, and a narrowing of focus to one or two options, including cessation, death, and egression and, ultimately, as the only solution to the problem of pain and frustrated needs.”

Voh and Baumeister later described a depletion of self-regulatory resources that underlies the escape model of suicide. Internal, global, and stable attributions for negative events mix with self-blame to create a messy emotional soup. When people are unable to regulate their negative emotions, they try to regulate their attention with cognitive deconstruction. This is “marked by an orientation to the present, an awareness of physical sensations and concrete stimuli (to the neglect of higher-order, complex, and meaningful thoughts), and an emphasis on proximal goals.” This can be self-protective in the sense that it shifts attention away from perceived weaknesses and negative thoughts thoughts about the past and the future, but the problem is that it’s also disinhibiting. As self-regulatory resources become further depleted, it becomes more and more difficult to pull out of the spiral towards suicide.

Disinhibition

Behavioural disinhibition is where suicidal ideation shifts into suicidal behaviour. When we’re thinking rationally, there are things that inhibit us from ending our lives, such as fear of pain or a desire not to cause grief for loved ones. We can also think in abstract terms about suicide being wrong or a negative outcome. With cognitive deconstruction, those inhibitions may not be accessible.

However, while suicidal ideation is not a very rational thought process, it’s still a conscious thought process. Like other living beings, we have a powerful survival instinct. Our amygdalae are on the lookout for danger, and they’re hell-bent on self-preservation, even when our conscious thoughts make death look desirable. Cognitive deconstruction can tone down the volume on that alarm, but I suspect that in many cases it doesn’t turn it off entirely.

In my early 20s, I was more adventurous than I am now, and I tried bungee jumping and skydiving. Even though I wanted to do both of those activities, my brain was screaming at me that these were not safe things to be doing. I knew those things weren’t going to kill me, and it was still hard to push through that survival instinct. Knowing has actually influenced the methods I’ve contemplated, because I haven’t wanted to put myself in a situation where delay fighting with my survival instinct could open the door for unwanted intervention.

The role of self-awareness and self-regulation

Cognitive deconstruction is not a healthy place to be, but by the time we’re there, self-awareness really isn’t happening. I think it’s good to be aware of, though, so we can take steps if we recognize that we’re starting to head down that path. For me, I know that passive suicidal ideation (i.e. wishing to die but not thinking about ways to make it happen) doesn’t directly lead to cognitive deconstruction, and I still have at least some access to rational thinking at that point. When I start pondering methods, that’s when I know I’m getting into the danger zone where cognitive deconstruction becomes much more likely. That’s when I know some kind of intervention is needed.

Suicide is like the ultimate maladaptive coping strategy, and it helps to have as many adaptive coping strategies in our toolbox as we can so we can keep ourselves from getting to that place. Voh and Baumeister’s work on self-regulation suggests that this is a useful area to work on, and mindfulness practices and dialectical behaviour therapy emotion regulation skills may be helpful with this. This work needs to happen when we’re managing not too badly; crisis and a deconstructed state is not the time to try out new and untested skills.

Does cognitive deconstruction sound like something that you’ve experienced?

References

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 “Suicidality and Cognitive Deconstruction”

  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

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