May is a time of exams, of heavy pressure, of huge change. All of these can trigger suicidal thoughts, especially for gifted people.
I first developed depression after sitting my GCSE exams. I was 15, almost 16.
For the first time in my school career, I’d worked really hard to prepare and take the exams. Then, they were over.
I had nearly three months of unstructured, unfocused time, after months of intense academic preparation.
I remember spending most of a family holiday alone in my tent, reading, and not coming out until teatime. I didn’t want to join in with the other teenagers on the campsite. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.
Four years later, the depression was still with me. I was disengaged from my degree studies, unhappy in the relationship with my boyfriend (who didn’t seem to care about me – at least, not from my perspective), and distressed by events in my wider family.
One day I was walking back to my room after lectures and contemplating not looking as I crossed the busy road ahead. I’d just walk out and let myself get hit.
But when I got to the road, something in me had to stop, look, and cross with care.
I stayed alive that day, and so did the depression.
I spent some weekends in the Welsh mountains. My fellow climbers were oohing and aahing at the impressive scenery (after the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, the Welsh mountains were pretty spectacular, apparently). I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t connect to any sense of awe or majesty, or even bare appreciation of the landscape. I was numb in depression.
The next summer, a month in the French Alps. Again, no appreciation, just numbness.
And wanting to vanish.
I’ve never been a particularly active or assertive suicidal person. More of a passive one. So this new version of suicidal was just a persistent, low key wish to vanish.
The depression lifted eventually. I ended the relationship with the boyfriend who didn’t seem to care for me, my mood changed dramatically after he moved out, and depression didn’t come back for a long, long time.
My next encounter with suicidal thoughts came over ten years later. I’d had a hell of a year. Chronic stress, serious workplace problems and regretfully leaving a job I was in love with, going onto unemployment benefit and looking for a new job.
I was exhausted.
I’d been learning to scuba dive, and was looking forward to getting back in the water.
But when I imagined it, I would imagine taking the regulator out of my mouth and letting myself fade away and drown.
Luckily, I could recognise this fantasy in my imagination for what it was. A metaphor.
And this is how I’ve come to understand suicidal thoughts – at least for myself, and I hope this understanding might help you too.
In the Tarot, for example, Death does not always mean Death as in end of life. Death often means change. The change of chapters in one’s life. The change of situations or phases. Death as transition.
And this is how I interpret my suicidal thoughts.
I’ve come to recognise suicidal thoughts as indicators of “I want change.” Not “I want to die” – but “I want the situation that I’m in now to change”
At university, I wanted change. I wanted to change my degree studies. Looking back, I can see that I also wanted to change my relationship situation – but I was in denial about that for a few years.
In the Alps, I wanted change. I wanted to be engaged in something. I had no goal, no purpose, at that time. And I was suffering a lack of direction. So I wanted this to change – I wanted to be out of the current situation, and into a new one. But as the new situation had no form or shape, the metaphor came to me as the “vanishing” type of suicidal thinking.
After my year of chronic stress and employerÂ problems, I wanted change. I wanted to be out of the exhaustion, out of the sheer fatigue of high stress and emotional damage that I’d experienced. I wanted to let go.
I got out. I had a fuck-it moment, and booked a long weekend in a local hotel, on my own.
I changed my surroundings as a way of hitting the reset switch.
I wanted somewhere with a swimming pool, sauna, massage facilities, and all-inclusive meals. I wanted other people to be looking after me on a practical level, so that I could let go and give my insides – my emotions – time to recoup.
I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. I trust my inner safety mechanisms. I don’t harm myself, I don’t turn to drink, other substances, or dangerous activities. I just need to let go of the practicals sometimes and let myself be how I am, and my long weekend away helped with that.
So why does this happen to gifted people? Why depression? Why suicide? I’ll give you a few explanations, then look at the practical side of what you can do about it.
Why gifted people?
Gifted people are very often both intellectually strong, and emotionally out of touch. The intellect is highly-developed and has carried the gifted person a very long way in their life – especially in an academic environment, for instance. When you’re emotionally out of touch with yourself, your emotions can get out of hand and drive you unknowingly into unhelpful places.
Secondly, intellectually gifted people are often unskilled in handling their emotions, if indeed they are in touch with them. You don’t get an instruction manual or lessons for your emotions like you do for music, maths or art. Some gifted people recognise that their emotions need some attention, and read up on it or seek out a counsellor. But some remain oblivious to their emotions and the effect that they have, and so stay relatively unskilled in emotional handling. Most of the time, this is fine, but when emotions get strong, or way out of balance, gifted people can really struggle to handle themselves and their powerful emotions.
Gifted teens can be stuck in a double bind: their giftedness is way ahead of their physical age, and people around them assume a higher level of emotional maturity because of the apparent intellectual maturity. But their emotions may still be very much teenage, only in the case of the gifted teen, these teenage emotions have a very powerful mind they can drive around – and unwittingly do a lot of damage to themselves with. The people around them are then surprised that the teen has got into difficulty, even though it was predictable given the teen”s intellectually-biased skillset.
Additionally, despite being emotionally out of touch with themselves, gifted people very often have very strong emotions (which they might even deny having!). I see a certain spark in gifted people, a particular kind of energy or fire inside. This spark is passionate, fervent, and intense. The intensity of emotions can lead to very strong responses to situations, which takes other people by surprise. This intensity needs a certain extra skill and understanding in handling – much like a high-performance car needs different handling to your regular city-runabout car.
These factors – being out of touch with emotions, being unskilled in handling emotions, and having emotions that are much more intense that your average person – can easily lead gifted people into depressive and suicidal spirals (and, of course, into manic spirals too).
Two of the malfunctional emotional response mechanisms in gifted people are headlock and drift, both of which can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies.
Your head is so firmly in control of your experience that you don’t feel. This is headlock. Highly intelligent people often have it – in fact this could be your persistent state of being.
Your emotions find their escape by messing with your thoughts – the only thing you’re still paying attention to. And then these emotionally-driven thoughts grow and grow in magnitude and drama. You’re effectively freaking yourself out. Now don’t start beating yourself up that you’re freaking yourself out! Just accept that you’ve lost touch temporarily with your emotional side and you need to get back in communication with it. How you do that will depend on you, your temperament and preferences.
Headlock can also manifest when you believe something so firmly that you ignore all signs to the contrary. “I have to stay in this relationship”,”I’m worthless”, “I have to kill myself” and “If I don”t get top grades I’m a disaster and everything’s going to go wrong”. In this kind of headlock, you’re not only blocking out your emotions, but you’re also holding yourself in a position or course of action that leads to more intense emotional responses (that are trying to help you out of the situation), and that isn’t going to serve you in the long run.
This kind of headlock kept me in a ”wrong” relationship for four years. On the ”wrong” degree path (I’m an engineer, not a physicist, at heart). In the ”wrong” living arrangements.
You can also be held in headlock by someone else. I’ve come across parents who believe (i.e. are headlocked in the idea) that they shouldn’t let their teenage children play – and hence let off steam – during their exam revision period. The result? Stressed, unhappy, headlocked teenagers.
Ironically, one of the more extreme emotional responses to headlock is that you offer yourself suicidal thoughts – intended by your emotional part as a distress signal “Make it change! Get me out of here!” – but that gets gripped by headlock as a literal desire, and spirals into more thoughts about depression and suicide, which leads to more feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts. Learn to recognise metaphors as metaphors: not all thoughts are meant to be taken literally.
When you’ve been so intensely focused on a goal – sitting exams – you forget what else there is in life. So you drift around, disengaged, becoming more bored and lonely. This is what happened to me that long summer after my GCSE exams. It happens to lots of gifted people.
As I’ve gone through more of life’s experiences, I’ve recognised this as a come-down pattern. After an intense project, a slump in mood and activity follow as I disengage, recharge, and prepare for the next thing.
If you’re not familiar with the pattern, you can easily get stuck in the disengage phase. Your energy levels drop, you close the project down in your mind, body and emotions, and your interest wanes. Unsettled by this low energy, closed-down state, you begin to question yourself, your actions, your purpose. You lose sight of the (usually) temporary nature of the slump, spin into headlock, and head down the slopes into depression, pointlessness and suicidal thoughts.
Like headlock, drift is also a symptom of being out of touch with your emotions.
Emotions tell you what you do – and don’t – want. When you’re in drift mode, you’ve lost touch with what you do or don’t want, and so you drift around, directionless.
Your emotions are still in there somewhere – they’re just tucked away, waiting for you to find them!
What you can do about it
Everything needs a good foundation. Emotional health – handling your emotions in a way that serves and helps you – is no exception.
The foundations for emotional health, and escaping the grips of headlock and drift, depression and suicidal thoughts, include:
- proper sleep – aim for regular times and about 8 hours a night
- proper food – regular, healthy and enjoyable! No need to torture yourself!
- proper hydration – plenty of water, not so much caffeine or alcohol
- proper movement – move for 20 minutes a day, or more.
- social interaction – spend time in person or on the phone with people whose company you enjoy
- pleasurable activity – do something unstressful that you enjoy. Note that this doesn’t have to be “relaxing” – just not something that causes you stress.
Beware of headlocking yourself into having to do these things. Let them be part of your daily rhythm, don’t force yourself into a completely alien regime that will actually worsen your state of being. Allow your positive habits to develop and grow stronger over time.
As well as your foundation, you’ll need stepping stones to get yourself out of headlock and drift. These stepping stones may include:
- talking: coaching / counselling / therapy…
- bodywork: energy healing / yoga / dancing / team sport…
- music: playing or listening to it, or both
- learning: read about how to get out of depression – bear in mind that you can go gently on yourself!
- getting into nature: go for walks or bike rides in the country, a park, or by the sea
- meditation & reflection (when you’re strong enough): process what happened, where you are now, where you want to be going
- positive distraction: do something that you enjoy, that doesn’t make your mental states worse
- spend time with others: do any of the above with positive people, or just hang out over a coffee
- rest: if you’ve been through chronic or severe stress, you may need to simply rest for a while
- park stressful issues if you can: if you have big decisions or issues to sort out, and you can park them for a few weeks, or months – do. You need to energy to recover yourself. You can deal with the big things later on.
- minimise negative input: cut down on watching depressive films, low-mood music, or hanging out with people who make you feel bad about yourself
Some of these are direct: coaching, counselling, and therapy, for example, may all include some focus on handling your thoughts and emotions, energy healing and other types of bodywork will help you to get more directly – physically – in touch with your emotions.
The more indirect stepping stones help you to feel more positive about yourself. When you feel more positive about yourself, you have more energy. When you have more energy, you’re better equipped to handle the process of getting more in touch with your emotions – especially when there are unpleasant emotions in the mix which need extra support when you’re processing them.
Choose things that are easy, straightforward and not going to add stress to your experience. They may be things you’ve done before, or new things. They may be things you do alone, or with one friend, or with many people.
My recovery from the last period of suicidal thoughts included a mix of direct and indirect methods. After the initial long weekend in a hotel to break the pattern and get fed, watered, well-slept and enjoy physical activities of swimming and a massage, I took up learning to play the harp (music / positive distraction), going for coffee and cake with friends (positive people), walking in the countryside and by the seaside with my husband (getting into nature, positive people), going to aerobics classes (bodywork), and resting. This all supported my meditation and reflection practice, which helped me to process the intellectual and emotional parts of what I’d been through.
Because I recognised the suicidal thoughts early on as a metaphor for wanting change, I was able to calm them quickly by changing my situation and spending a few days being looked after in the hotel. After that, my focus was on recovery: piecing myself together, building my internal resources back up through positive activity, letting the wounds heal in their own time with help from positive people.
As I got stronger, I was also able to apply self-healing to bring the process along: healing visions in meditation as well as energy healing my body and releasing the darker experiences.
An action plan
When you find yourself depressed – or suicidal – take heart. You’re not alone: you share your path with countless other people who understand where you’re at, how it feels, and how you can move through it.
Your depression or suicidal thoughts mean that something in your experience is not aligned with what you want. Your job is to figure out what that is and put it right.
Treating yourself gently, get your foundation in place.
Remove as many big stresses and issues as you can – or postpone them to later.
Recognise that when you’re having suicidal thoughts, you’re not in a healthy-enough position to make a good decision about it.
Bring in your favourite stepping stones towards emotional health.
Enlist help from positive people – friends, professionals, whoever.
Go gently, step by step.
Allow yourself time to recharge, then tackle the issue(s) from a positive place in yourself, with support around you.
Recognise the external factors that have triggered your depression: a project ending, chronic stress in one or more aspects of your life, goal-less-ness, being treated badly by other people.
Recognise the internal factors that have contributed: headlock, drift, overthinking, denying yourself positive activities…
Allow healing to take place. Expect it to take time – this’ll vary depending on the issue you’re healing and the resources you have available to heal with.
Recognise and celebrate moving forward – and enjoy it.
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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.
Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, neurodiversity training, mentoring & coaching for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.
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