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.
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.
Internal resources for self-regulation can be bolstered by mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, self-expression, and maintaining physical well-being. PositivePsychology.com 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.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page covers a variety of topics related to suicide, including getting help and safety planning, from the perspective of someone who’s been there.