You have seen my troubles, and you care about the anguish of my soul. Psalm 31:7 (NLT)
by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
If you have kids at home, they likely know someone who has at least thought about suicide. The idea of suicide as a consideration for coping with anxiety and stress is running wild throughout the adolescent and pre-adolescent culture in this unpredictable and socially fragile time they are living in. And for the most part, they’re not talking to you about it. But more often than not, they are talking to each other. Some are supportive in helping their friends to seek help, and others are feeding into each other’s misery; perhaps unwittingly cheering each other on to self-harm. And it’s all over social media.
I am a counselor in a hospital psychiatric ward (child and adolescent youth). I work with psychologically wounded kids. I have the opportunity to speak truth and life into the minds of my teenage and preteen patients who consider suicide as a means to a remedy for a burden so overwhelming they feel they’re being crushed under its weight. Call it the temple of failure and fear.
My mission when counseling these kids is to help them to filter what they feel emotionally through what they know logically makes more sense to them in the rational thinking regions of their brains. They just don’t know that they know. As these kids allow this rational intellectual truth to sink in they can begin to discern the difference between giving up when they are feeling hopeless, and giving up with the intellectual (rational) understanding that they are helpless… helpless to resolve their conflicts on their own. This is huge! Feeling hopeless leads to despair as though help is not at all possible. Rationally understanding that they are helpless affords these kids the opportunity to seek needed help for that which is beyond their ability to manage. There is hope in that. If only there are willing, which usually they are when they sense that help is realistic.
The same, of course, is true for people of all ages experiencing feelings of hopeless despair, so overwhelmed by the burden they carry that they may consider terminating their own life as the most effective way out from under it. If allowed to go rogue, the emotional brain within all human beings tends to run roughshod over the rational sensibility of intellectually sound reason.
The only thing the emotional brain really cares about is relieving the discomfort of the moment. Suicide will do that. But what these young people are not thinking about is how suicide is a ripoff. To reduce the pain of their present circumstance is to lose out on future experiences these kids haven’t even thought of yet. It’s important that they be informed of the good in their lives that is coming if they can endure their teenage circumstances.
Just like teenagers ten years ago never would have imagined what they value and love today, they have no idea that ten years from now they will experience—and may have by then already experienced—things in their lives that are so very special and important to them. If only they could see it. Of course, there are no guarantees, but it is entirely possibly that they will experience the love of someone they haven’t even met yet. Maybe it’s an enduring romance. Maybe it’s the birth and life of a child. Maybe it’s a dream opportunity. But they have to prevail through the mess they’re in today to get there.
Something I have realized working with these kids is that they are trusting solely with their emotional brain while so overwhelmed they feel hopeless, and that giving into their sense of despair means that suicide is the best remedy to unload the burden they carry. Many of them are unbelievers; skeptics cynical of dysfunctional (and perhaps abusive) parents professing religious beliefs. These kids trend toward wanting nothing to do with faith in the God of the parents many of them believe to be hypocrites.
It’s popular for these young people to say they don’t believe in God. Some of them did believe, and perhaps even want to believe still, but they are hurting inside and those who’ve been hurting them say that they believe in God… even attend church. How do kids believe in the same God that those hurting them say they believe in? So these wounded kids choose to not believe in the God they cannot see. What appears to be going on here is that they choose not to believe in the God whose good they cannot see. I want to help them see the evidence of God’s goodness in their experience.
I hope to challenge my patients with this question: If God didn’t always exist, what did? Something did. Was it a living, intelligent, loving God that invented life and love, or was it something not alive, without love in it, that always existed and somehow, through random process, accidentally evolved into the complexities of everything that lives, and reasons, and loves? Many of my patients pretend not to care about these questions but with some prompting and persuasion, engage in the discussion.
I had a chance recently to get into it with a couple of recovering suicidal teenagers who insisted they believed in science, and that something of the universe was always out there. I asked them, “Even if it was, how did the universe originate life without some divine direction unless it was already alive? How did the evolutionary process occur through random, accidental mutations and occurrences? I asked them, “If the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle you’re playing were scattered a across the floor, and then just laid there a few billion years, would the puzzle put itself together and create a picture that made any sense? Would something like a strong wind come through and blow the pieces over time to eventually fit them all together just so? Would the building deteriorate and over time the pieces would find each other? Or would the pieces deteriorate as well? How would the pieces of this puzzle come to life, and then reproduce to make more puzzles, each with their own unique pictures, that with some built-in mechanism, put themselves together?”
They agreed that the puzzle would not solve itself or be solved without help.. Someone had to do something with it. I then asked them, if they were to accept that they were made by a Creator, if everything after that is possible (including the resurrection of the son of God)? The response? “That’s a good point. I have to really think about that now.”
These two teenagers, a boy and a girl, both made the point that they were against religion. So I made sure they understood that I was not all talking about religion. I was talking to them about what made the most sense in regards to the origins of it all. Their initial reaction was an emotional one against religion. Don’t even get them started about religion. But once the emotional opposition to religion was taken from the equation, we were able to have a reasonable discussion on what made the most sense to them on an intellectual plane. All of sudden they were open-minded about a lot more after that; certainly willing to listen and ponder likelihoods and probabilities, according to their own understanding, rather than being limited by preconceived notions and misguided conclusions.
These kids I get to work with say they don’t believe in Santa Claus either, so I’ll ask them, “If Santa landed on your roof, again and again, Christmas after Christmas, and blessed you, would you then believe in Santa Claus?” They respond almost every time that they most certainly would believe. Once these kids see the goodness of God that is evident in the circumstances of their lives, I believe that they would find relationship with God irresistible. They need to make up their own minds and reach their own thought-out conclusions, rather than sucking on someone else’s made for them.
What God has allowed me to do is use whatever talent and skill he has afforded me to break through the barriers erected by religious dogma and emotional resistance to faith by targeting the rational sensibilities in the frontal regions of their brains. I often see the light flickering in the eyes of my patients when their argument for science becomes more tenuous to wrap their heads around than the sensibility of faith in a creator who made them and loves them like his son or daughter.
Children and teenagers, desperate to feel loved, are encouraged. It’s pretty cool seeing the light in their eyes begin to flicker. When the light comes on and shines brightly it is awesome to experience with them. It then makes the most sense to take suicide off the table as the lone intervention for their pain and consider more rational strategies to manage their anxiety and depression, empowered by the renewing of their minds… a transformative change in their rational thinking. If only they believed in the Creator who made their minds in the first place.
Alright, so let’s get into it
Of course, the matter of hopeless despair and suicide as a seemingly reasonable antidote for severe discomfort is not exclusive to young people. Victims of trauma often find living to be an endeavor of futility.
Veterans of our military in this country are typically subject to the most unimaginable trauma and are left feeling it is all just too much to bear (20 suicides each day). Cancer victims in pain and struggling to deal with harsh inevitabilities may feel that they are in way over their heads when nothing will cure what ails them. Those burdened with trauma, drug addiction, chronic unemployment, personal loss and failure, profound shame and regret, death and divorce, abandonment, poverty, heartache, getting old, and those afflicted with disability and mental illness (such as psychosis and depression), are particularly vulnerable and at risk for self-termination.
Another source of trauma for our young people today—even though it’s not at all exclusive to them—is the matter of gender and sexual identity. Gay or straight? Male or female… or a combination of both male and female… or neither male or female? These are serious issues that have various degrees of trauma built in as kids living out this experience struggle with feeling confused, bullied, betrayed, rejected, and in so many cases, abandoned by those they trust and love most. To resist it, reject it, or altogether ignore it, could literally be a matter of life or death as today’s youth wrestle with the dysphoric effects of what it all means for them, and all that they consider to be at stake.
Another trigger at the pulse of anxiety, stress, and depression is a preoccupation with an overwhelming sense of injustice and feeling victimized. There is this asphyxiating battle of attrition regarding demands and expectations, and the inability of so many to meet those demands; never living up to expectations. It has led to problems of intense stress in families and communities, evoking acute anxiety and deepening depression. This prevailing sense of injustice on so many plains has fostered the erosion of confidence in individuals and families to ever measure up. How can I ever be content enough to experience joy if the deck is always stacked against me? As values continue to be shaped by diminished self-esteem, the notion that happiness is possible is crippled, increasing feelings of hopeless despair.
It is the burden of unmet expectation that becomes so heavy that it can no longer be ferried on the backs of the injured and oppressed. Suicide, unfortunately, then feels like the only route of escape into relief; a desperate act to get out from under the weight of the burden. When suffocating, they will do anything to catch their breath.
Where then lies our hope?
The Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him! Isaiah 30:18 (NIV)
Depression and despair is not partial to any particular age group. Statistically, studies indicate that suicide rates increase with age. Younger population groups have had consistently lower suicide rates than middle-aged and older adults. However, there is a major spike in suicide rates during the adolescent and young adult years.
I am working primarily with kids younger than eighteen years of age, so that is my emphasis and priority with what I have written here. However, the findings and applications throughout this piece are inclusive to anyone and everyone in the battle to experience freedom and peace. What I believe is critical to young people considering suicide as an escape route is that they have yet to develop adequate comprehension to measure their concerns against their capacity to manage what they are feeling once they have sufficient support and the tools to survive, cope, and thrive.
What I have found (and continue to find) working with young people is that what gets twisted is that real helplessness from overwhelming stress becomes distorted emotionally, to the point that folks feel hopeless; sucked into the vacuum of despair. When that happens, these individuals do not feel like giving up and crying out for help. They feel that there is no help. Therefore, happy is not possible… not gonna happen. So they feel like giving up and ending what they believe is the futility of their lives. There is no point. It’s not a cliche. It’s not melodramatic. It is truly what they believe is their reality.
The reality is that, according to the Center for Disease Control, suicide has been the second leading cause of death (2011-2014) in the United States for young people, age 10 through 34. That suicide is documented as the second-leading cause of death for fifth through eighth grade children is particularly alarming. I will go in depth into this most tragic of crises among our youth.
Young people, having attempted suicide, usually report to me a feeling of panic and change of mind due to a profound sense of the unknown outcome once “crossing over” to the “other side.” Almost every time, these kids tell me that they don’t know they would just cease to exist… no more than a pile of bones in a box that doesn’t feel anything anymore. They become frightened they might be wrong about that. It’s not necessairly a religious thing. It’s far deeper than that. It isn’t something they typically comprehend. But its reality scares them to death (pun intended). And in that moment they’re not sure that dying is the solution for remedying their pain.
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (NLT)
The most famous person to ever walk on planet earth said…
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow—crushed with grief—to the point of death.” —Jesus of Nazareth
The way we view self is through the lens of our life experiences. When the lens is fogged up by our experiences, we’ll struggle to see things clearly, which in turn impacts beliefs that distort our values and self-esteem. Distorted beliefs and twisted values fuel feelings and thoughts that drive choices and behavior; even though we may know better on a reasonable, intellectual level.
When emotion betrays reasonable sensibility, that’s when the problems get bigger, conflicts intensify, and confrontations lapse into hostility. When emotion betrays reasonable sensibility, healthy guilt, instead of being a platform for motivating constructive change and growth, morphs into that bottomless pit of shame, and profound feelings of disappointment and failure. When emotion betrays reasonable sensibility, relationships are perceived as a threat, rather than an opportunity to experience love.
The emotional mind of a person has been and continues to be a killer when betraying the rational sensibilities of the intellectual mind. Feelings will commit treason against rational thought and emote hopelessness and the notion of giving up. What is warranted here is the conversion from an emotionally fed hopeless state to a rationally sound helpless state (meaning what, exactly?). This will make complete sense if you’re willing to go on a little journey to learn about how the brain works and what that it means for anyone considering doing something radical to escape the pain and struggle of lost hope.
For those experiencing sadness and depression, the notion of contentment and happiness is a conditional (what has become) reality.
“I will be happy if…”
“I will be happy when…”
Assessment and judgment about life experiences going forward is so clouded by life experiences looking backward that it’s as though one is blind to the possibility that life can truly be good. The stress of expectation takes its toll to the point that even positive experiences are flawed and tainted. A good thing to anyone else is a burden to the one whose moments of delight are reasons to worry. It won’t last… it never does… therefore, anything good is only a set up for adversity and misery. Happiness is stressful. Therefore, true happiness is not possible in the minds of those battling anxiety and depression.
Add to perceived failure, rejection and disappointment, actual failure, rejection and disappointment, and you have a confused, complicated mind. Throw in some trauma and betrayal and you have a disturbed mind. Pile on with some loneliness and isolation and you’re looking at someone in despair. The straw that breaks the camel’s back may be the onset of mental illness with all of its neurobiological factors.
“I cannot continue to live this way… It’s too overwhelming… The burden is way too heavy and it’s crushing me…”
“I am a burden to everyone around me… If I can’t take care of myself, how can I take care of anyone else? Who’s taking care of me?”
“Why do my parents hit each other? Why do they hit me? Why do my parents call me names?”
“Why don’t my parents care about me? Why don’t they love me? Come to think of it, I’m not sure what love is…”
“I don’t have any friends… The only attention I get from other kids is when they bully me.”
“I’m so ugly… No one loves me… I’m worthless… I hate myself.”
“What I’ve done is unforgivable! How can anyone love me?”
“What am I missing that my wife found in someone else?”
“Why does my husband hate me so much?”
“Why do my children despise me?”
“I am a failure as a parent.”
“I’m no good to anyone… I feel like such a failure.”
“Everyone I know hurts me or I hurt them. I’m no good to anyone! You would all be better off without me.”
“Why am I here? What is there in my life to live for? I have no purpose.”
“What’s the point, anymore? I can never be happy. I feel so hopeless. I give up.”
Scars are, in actuality, healed wounds that have left their mark as evidence of harm done. Scars tend to fade over time. Scabs, on the other hand, are wounds in the process of healing. It may not require a whole lot of stress or conflict against the healing wound to rip wide open the scab and there is once again and open wound ripe for contamination and infection.
Emotional wounds are very much like that. Until they are completely healed, which can take more than a lifetime, they are easily reopened, gagging the healing process. Defenses go up, walls are erected, feelings are repressed, and the search is on for an effective remedy. What will it take to escape the pain? What will it take to finally be free?
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
The human brain has so many facets in how it works. The limbic system is an operating system generally seen as the emotional center within the systemic perplexities of one’s process of what to do with experiences. The brain also has within the cerebral cortex it’s more intellectual processors along a region known as the frontal lobes. It is there where most rational thought occurs regarding decisions, problem solving, judgment, planning and other higher forms of intellectual process.
Messages are relayed throughout the activity of the brain through a vast network of neurons relaying messages via neurotransmitters. Neurons are the messengers in the brain transmitting electrical impulses (nuerotransmissions) from neuron (nerve cell) to neuron—some trillion of them—throughout the central nervous system. When neurotransmitters are in balance, intellectual and emotional processes in the brain are operating well together.
The limbic system (emotional mind) involves neurotransmitters associated with the emotional part of the brain having to do with regulating mood and energy, pleasure and reward, anger management, pain modulation, relief and relaxation, contentment and satisfaction, excitement, and so on. It is a critical region of the human anatomy sensitive to trauma and stress; and in particular, sudden stress.
The cerebral frontal cortex (rational mind) involves neurotransmitters relaying signals having to do with thoughtful concern and caution, intellectual (cognitive) function, processing information, memory and recall for learning. When the neurotransmissions from these frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex are in balance with the neurotransmissions from the limbic system, motivation is healthiest and energy is most congruent with temperate emotional health (psychiatric stability).
“The frontal lobes are particularly important in our sense of willfulness and have even been attributed as the seat of the will. And the limbic system is typically regarded as the emotional value areas of the brain.” —Dr. Andrew Newberg, Neuroscientist
So when you hear talk of someone not being wired right or getting their wires crossed, it sound be facetious, but it’s actually the case. People are not electronic machines or robots. We are wonderfully and fearfully (carefully) made by God. God created the science of the human make up and the systemic process within the human brain and central nervous system. He created us to be special beings in the universe.
We were made to live in this world free of disturbance and distortion. But since neither you or I are God, we’ve taken this amazing instrument of his creation and made some choices that the intentional glitch of free will allow us to make. These choices are independent from the way the system is intended to operate. The result of these flaws written into the program, made by human error, have resulted in the network crashing, leading to disorder and imbalance.
Imbalance in these transmissions between neurons contribute to the experience of anxiety, unmanaged anger and stress, depression, and an overall sense of psychological disarray. Disappointment can decline into a sense of inadequacy and sadness. Sadness can sink into a deeper sense of worthlessness and sorrow. Worthlessness and sorrow can drown into an irrational sense of failure and hopelessness. What can be mystifying is when someone experiencing symptoms of neurochemical imbalance cannot identify stressors that are triggering symptoms.
These two systems of brain functioning need to work really well together in a symbiotic relationship. It needs to be a collaborative effort for healthy daily living for quality of life to be enjoyed. Unfortunately, the accumulation of life experiences can really do damage to the relationship between what is often referred to as the rational mind and that of the emotional mind, resulting in irrational behavioral decisions.
Abuse, neglect, and trauma on any level, within any range of acuity and intensity, can have debilitating impact on the cerebral functioning of anyone, but especially young people; most specifically, children. Those children grow up to be emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to cerebral effects. Each and every experience of a person’s life is processed into the accumulation of stored information. Everything that is seen, heard, and felt is considered automatically as it comes to each and every behavioral decision; whether it be spontaneous or thought out over time.
Add to that the reality that the human brain may have clinical breakdowns within its ability to process information within one’s experience. Behavioral health issues and mental illness add significantly to the overall scope of the breaking down of rational process and impulse control.
What’s wrong with my kid?
I work primarily with children—teens and preteens—as a mental health counselor in the behavioral health wing of a Chicago-area hospital; what some might consider to be the psychiatric ward.
Most of these kids deal with the issue of suicide or have been escalating in their aggressive behavior to the point where their parents and/or social authority types have run out of viable options other than to get them necessary help, including hospitalization.
Some of these kids have attempted suicide. While most may overdose on pills, others have tried to hang themselves or cut themselves. Some have walked into busy streets, and others have have walked along a bridge. Most of our patients have told someone they feel suicidal since losing hope that life can ever be better than what it is.
I mentioned the matter of abuse, neglect, and trauma. These conditions are most prevalent in the cases of the individuals I work with, including the adults and substance abusers I work with from time to time.
(Notice I did not mention that anyone I have worked with has jumped off a bridge or a roof, since those who have attempted suicide that way are generally successful.)
Children who have been bullied can be traumatized emotionally from those experiences. As soon as I use the term “bully,” does your mind go to children’s experiences with other children… particularly at school? What about the bullying that happens in the homes of these kids? More specifically than that, what about children being bullied by their parents? What about children seeing one parent bullying another parent? Bullying can occur between siblings. Bullying is more than physical. Bullying can be verbal. The outcome of bullying is emotional and can be debilitating.
Bullying is abusive and potentially traumatizing to these children; children that are growing up, like it or not.
Regardless of how subtle or intense these experiences are, the minds of children are processing all of it into the accumulation of information that is stored as the brains of these kids are programmed over time. The outcome lies in thinking and behavioral choices that render a verdict for what happens today and into their future.
There lies the problem. As children accumulate information from each and every experience, their minds are labeling those experiences, according to feelings they readily understand that translate into boundless insecurities. The most meaningful include feeling betrayed, rejected, unforgiven, unloved, and unwanted. While they might not have any idea what a giving, loving relationship looks like or feels like, something from within the core of their rational sensibilities has an idea of what they are supposed to look like and feel like.
Many of these young people may not have experienced something in their most important and meaningful relationships they know as unconditional love and support, but they do have an idea of what they are missing. They have innate expectations for those who are supposed to love and care for them, and when those expectations are not met, there is a void; a vacuum left that will absorb whatever it can from wherever it can get it.
For the sake of this discussion, I would like to suggest that as a lifetime’s worth of experiences have impacted and infected the way we see ourselves, how we see the world, and how we see ourselves in the world, distorting values and twisting beliefs, the entangled chaos in our network of emotional development and process becomes ’emotional dysfunction.’
What’s wrong with my kid, my spouse, my friend, or perhaps with me, is that the emotional process within the systemic networks of the brain is led to believe what our feelings tell us, according to the collected information from our experiences. So then everything to be experienced from that point forward is through the lens of our emotional dysfunction.
In other words, there is what I know in my deepest intellectual sensibilities to be rational. Then, according to my experiences, there is how what I know to be rational is altered by how I feel about it. How I feel about it can be intense; even extreme. My response to a new experience can be an immediate reaction before I ever deliberately process the thought. It’s what the cognitive-behavioral experts refer to as automatic thinking.
The emotional center of the brain—the limbic system—translates experiences into sudden responses without having filtered the experience through the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. When feelings are filtered through rational thinking—judgement—we have more opportunity to actually think before we react. When the emotional systems go rogue and take over, we’ll have the tendency to lose control of our impulses, leading to automatic thinking and behavioral choices, followed by their logical/natural consequences.
When driving an automobile, most of us drive with one foot, switching between the accelerator and the brake. If we still had the foot on the accelerator while simultaneously applying the break, it would be very difficult for the vehicle to discontinue moving forward at the pace it was moving. There is definite potential for disaster and tragedy.
This limbic system of the brain’s process acts like an accelerator when it comes to driving behavior. The frontal cerebral cortex serves as the brake pedal for the purpose governing behavior. However, this function of this accelerator escalating one’s emotional temperature can make it especially difficult for the brake to be applied in time or to have the desired cautionary response.
It would be like driving a hundred miles an hour on a road with a fifty mile an hour speed limit full of twists and turns. You come around the turn at excessive speeds and there a cars in front of you. You see their tail lights and attempt to slow down. But when your escalated feelings affect your judgment, you come up on the traffic in front of you at too high a speed and do not realize that what appeared to be tail lights are not that at all. They are brake lights and you are driving so fast that a high-speed collision is inevitable.
The frontal lobes of the brain, where logic and rational thought occur acts as the brake pedal, execute caution through inhibitory transmissions to form rational resistance against a careless emotional reaction to something. When these two systems of the brain that drive behavioral choices are functioning in harmony, the rational brain serves as protector and defender, able to present willful resistance against potential harm. The more someone is harmed and beaten down through the accumulation of negative experience, the more the rational function of the brain is weakened and vulnerable to further harm. Then, more emotional defenses are built up not in tandem with sound intellectual recognition since rational thinking has been tricked by emotion. Walls are erected and barriers emboldened, resulting in increased fear.
Love inspires confidence and healthy motivation. The opposite or absence of love begets fear and gives it life. Fear can be rational and healthy, enabling thoughtful objection; and fear can be irrational, disabling thoughtful objection while subject to unfounded defenses not in one’s best interest. I have the following acronym for irrational fear.
The opposite of love is fear. Increased fear can affect the fight or flight response of the brain (the amygdala) resulting in an intense or extreme response to something because fear is present and driving the impulsive response. The amygdala in the lower region of the brain, you might say, offers a logically emotional response in the heat of the moment.
“Love generally activates the positive emotional and social areas of the brain. The primary area involved in fear is the amygdala. This area lights up in our brain when we are afraid. Other areas of the brain such as the frontal lobe helps to regulate the fear response. So your quote is probably fairly accurate as far as the brain goes. When we focus on love, the activity in the frontal lobe actually can suppress the fear responses in the amygdala. So the more we focus on love and compassion, the less fear we will feel.” —Dr. Newberg
This is the case when any of us make behavioral choices in the heat of the moment, or on impulse. It is an emotional reaction to an experiential event that precedes rational thought. The ensuing behavior is then followed by a logical outcome that bears personal responsibility and is so often painful. What is meant by logical outcome, or consequence, is the event or feeling that is most likely to follow as if this thing and the next thing are connected. Two plus two adds up to four every single time, without exception. So often, behavior works that way. This plus this adds up to that every time with little exception. And that may very well be an outcome that weighs huge on the course of someone’s life.
Experiences of trauma will heighten the acuity of this kind of emotionally reactive response that may come off as extreme when recipients on the other end happen to get in the way, unaware of the places the behavior is emanating from. The dam collapses under the weight of insurmountable force and those hit by the surge are then hurt; perhaps severely, and the logical outcome is experienced trauma.
When we interpret events through the emotional lens of our cumulative experience, our behavior tends to respond according to what we believe about those events. We then behave according to what we believe. The behavior is followed by logical outcomes that trigger emotional consequences in response to the logical outcomes.
For awhile, the logical outcome might be something that we feel good about, which reinforces the behavior. So we continue to engage in the behavior. But when the cumulative effects of the behavior build up to the point that is causes discomfort and pain, (at least theoretically) the same behavior is extinguished.
So what happens when behavior that leads to increasing discomfort and pain is not extinguished (or is reinforced, for that matter) and continues?
That’s often the case when it pertains to addiction and other patterns of behavior that persist, despite being painful. Behavior that has been so normalized is hardest to change.
“Even though you’ve discovered false beliefs, uncovered the lies and know a new truth, there is a time lag between what your limbic system believes and what your neocortex has learned… It will get shorter as you continue to challenge the false beliefs (traumatic memories) and risk trusting people… You will be able to make a good choice rather than overreacting with a “fight or flight” response.
Old automatic habits aren’t changed quickly or easily, and are stronger when we’re tired… Change happens one decision at a time. No matter what your emotions tell you would feel good to do (drugs, alcohol, sex, food), listen to what your mind knows, and do what is best or right.” —Michael Dye and Patricia Fancher, Relapse and the Brain
Hopeless or Helpless?
I will explain why the answer to this matter of feeling hopeless is so influenced by the emotional realities of how the brain works at the expense of rational thought (rational thought being that which is persuaded my intellectual sensibility). Then I will tell you my anecdotal treadmill story to illustrate the point.
There are all of these life experiences and memories that have generated feelings of the highest impact over time. The way the brain works is that present experiences are viewed through the lens of those emotional memories. Feelings about present experiences and circumstances are then filtered through our emotional lens. Expectations are deliberated through our emotional lens. Self-esteem is mitigated through our emotional lens. Hope and fear are litigated through our emotional lens. Strength and confidence are validated through our emotional lens.
As dramatic and traumatic experiences take their toll, the impressions of these experiences have their way of fogging up someone’s emotional lens and most experiences are falsely interpreted. So judgment rendered is, “GUILTY!” Guilt is then internalized until shame defines a person as bad, unworthy, and therefore, unlovable. Regret is an awful burden left untreated. The result is that rational thoughts are apprehended by feelings of disappointment, failure, rejection, worthlessness, insecurity, fear and doubt. Believing one is hopeless and stuck then sinks into a dark place of despair. Hopeless feelings of giving up are very real by this point and must be taken seriously; exactly for what they are. It does not matter how accomplished someone may appear to be, hopeless despair is a killer if permitted to fester while continually evolving into something of a monster from the inside. The monster’s name is suicide.
The first intervention is the conversion from hopeless to helpless. How does that make sense? How is helpless that much of a leap from hopeless? Hopeless is oblivious to the help that is on it’s way. Hopeless doesn’t believe it will ever be better. Hopeless is blind to potential and opportunity.
I often ask my teenage patients to think about what they wanted ten years ago, between the ages three and seven? What did they want for their lives at that age? How has what they value and want changed? But when things and relationships do not go according to plan, these kids come to believe that it’s over. If they cannot come into the experience of what they want and wish for in this moment, they will never arrive into the experience of what they want and believe they need right now. They are no more than a slug that can no longer move, and they hate that condition so much, something’s got to give.
“Caterpillars are easy to catch because of their slow movement and attractive, bright colors.” —Reference.com
People are like caterpillars, in a way. Colorful in who they are but so limited in what they can do because of the burden they’re lugging around. It stifles their movement. They feel stuck in their tracks. Even though they need nourishment, they’re so bloated and miserable in their circumstances, they don’t have an appetite for the things they enjoy that are good for them. Instead, they settle for junk food to gratify the hunger because of the mess that has settled into their system; walking away from their favorite meal.
Escalating, even overwhelming, distress is a burden so heavy that it fosters an intensely helpless reality. The weight is crushing and demands the need for help. The pursuit of needed support is a rational choice that is breeds hope once help is anticipated. Therefore, the conversion from hopeless to helpless is the difference between losing the will to try anything anymore—settling to give up and die—and recognition that help is needed to do more with support than one can do on his or her own.
Feeling helpless does not believe the irrational conclusion that life is no longer worth living, no matter how awful it feels. Feeling helpless is not blind to possibility, potential, and opportunity.
There is still hope. The rational, thoughtful conclusion is that with sufficient help and support, there is still a chance. This realization is the first step of empowerment toward a realistic solution in the hope of lifting the burden; even if it’s easing the burden just enough.
Hopeless despair is driven by the emotional center of the brain, while helpless distress is realized in the rational thought component of how the brain relates to circumstances through the lens of life experiences. When rational thought can be persuaded intellectually to sensibly contextualize life experiences, it is an opportunity to employ present circumstances as a motivation to seek out help.
What does it mean to contextualize life experiences? Anger, for example, isn’t always a negative feeling. Anger can be a motivator to construct a solution. Resentment on the other hand can feel inescapable and be a far more arduous path toward destruction. Desperation can be a motivator toward a productive response, or in a darker context can sink into feelings of despair until drowning in hopelessness. The right kind of help and support allows for the opportunity to reframe the context of collective experiences.
Just as the fifteen year-old doesn’t want the same thing he or she did at five, by the time these teenagers turn twenty and twenty-five years old, what they want and value will likely be very different… better… healthier… wiser. Their brains will be far more developed, and as they mature, what they want and value should begin to align more with what they rationally understand to be sensible about what they need. As these kids mature and develop intellectually, they can be helped to identify more easily what they know makes the most sense, and therefore trust in their feelings less, and have more confidence in what they know.
How do we help them get there? How do we best support the maturing process so that they will not give up when it feels that all is lost at this time when a romance crashes, or they fail classes, or they’re bullied, or their parents split up, or someone they love died? How do we help to keep them afloat long enough to grow up into the best version of themselves? How do we help them to adjust their focus and perspective? How do we help them to clear the lens of their experience enough that what they see is not ugly and worthless, but beautiful and priceless?
We must help these kids to make the clear distinction between a life worth living, and the reality that giving up on life still does not get them any closer to what they want. We must help them to see that they have to care enough about themselves to want to end their suffering, one way or the other. If they didn’t love themselves, they would be indifferent to their wants and needs and would not need a remedy since they’re indifferent to pain. If they care enough to end their misery through the act of suicide, why not care enough to get the help they need to experience relief and lighten their load, moving instead into something more productive and satisfying?
It is recognizing the stark contrast between hopeless despair and helpless distress that will change the tide for these kids. It’s understanding that what they want is not termination, but rather restoration into hope for what they come to believe is realistic possibilities into the kind of change in their approach to managing real-life circumstances, and how they feel about it all.
He reached down from heaven and rescued me;
he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemies,
from those who hated me and were too strong for me.
They attacked me at a moment when I was in distress,
but the Lord supported me.
He led me to a place of safety;
he rescued me because he delights in me. Psalms 18:16-19 (NLT)
The Treadmill Story
I have told the treadmill story to adults, to teenagers, and to children as young as eight years old. It is the story of an experience I had around 2010 that illustrates quite effectively the difference between hopeless and helpless. The objective when sharing this experience I had is to help those I counsel to reconsider whether or not they are feeling hopeless or helpless.
Alright, so here it is…
For nine hours it felt as if something was squeezing my heart. I went to work and went through the entire day with chest pains and tight pressure in my chest. My wife, a nurse, was working the second shift until almost midnight so I chose not to bother her with it. I didn’t tell anybody.
My wife has often warned me that lack of exercise and not the healthiest of diets could do me in. She would remind me that God’s calling is on my life for my sons, my grandsons, and the hundreds of patients with whom I have influence.
After self-diagnosing online, I concluded it was time to venture on over to the emergency room at the local hospital. Once getting attention at the ER, I was given a three-part medication, what the doctor called a drug cocktail. The tightness and pain in my chest went away in right around ten minutes or so. It turns out is was a gastrointestinal thing; Something I was told was due to stress my body was experiencing that mimicked a heart attack. I didn’t at the time recall feeling overly stressed but I was going through some things that were definitely stressful. I just thought I was handling it well.
However, I had another problem. When initially interviewed by medical personnel, I disclosed that my father died from an apparent heart attack several years ago. This meant that they would have to stress my heart enough to diagnose it is as healthy enough to release me.
The clinical staff told me that, per protocol, they needed to get my heart beating at or above 160 beats per minute. So they put me through some exercises to get my heart to race a bit and then put me on the treadmill. As they gradually sped up the treadmill to the point where I was running at a pretty brisk pace, my heart was beating in the neighborhood of 110-120 beats per minute. Not even close to the criteria that needed to be met. So they set the treadmill at a faster pace, and when that only brought my heart rate up slightly, they set the treadmill on an incline so that I was now galloping uphill.
After a couple of minutes of this, I began to really labor. My feet were flopping and felt quite heavy. The temperature in the room was chilly, yet I was sweating buckets. Sweat was dripping from everywhere and I had soaked through my scrubs. I felt my heart beating through my chest. I was to the point where I was completely drained of energy. I could not continue to do this. I was so gassed that I felt I was going to collapse. I kept telling them, “I’m not kidding; I am going to fall.”
Can you remember riding your bicycle up a hill until you couldn’t pedal anymore, having lost the energy to keep pedaling. What did you do? Did you give up and fall to the ground? Or, did you get off your bike and walk it the rest of the way up the hill? Falling would be painful. I would probably fall on my face; the treadmill ripping against my flesh.
By now, I no longer had the energy to even hold onto the handles anymore. I could also see the monitor that indicated my heart rate ranging from 150-155 beats per minute. I could no longer stand it and I called out again, “I’m gonna fall!”
I screamed at them, “Turn it off!”
Good thing they slowed it down by gradually or I would have run through the wall in front of me. I slumped helplessly over the handles.
The treadmill was off and the staff helped me to a chair where I felt a tremendous sense of relief. My heart was still stressed and beating out of my chest but the worst of it was over.
I had felt absolutely overwhelmed and consumed by the stress of that experience, which lasted only a few minutes but felt like an eternity. I was utterly helpless and overcome to the point that I would have given up by what felt like was no choice of my own. I may have like I was dying but I did not want to die, and remained hopeful that if someone turned the treadmill off, I stood a chance. My life would be better.
I called out for help and received the help that I needed to manage what was clearly unmanageable.
I have shared this story with almost all of my teenage patients and many of the preteen children I have worked with. I then ask the following question.
“When you you’re feeling overwhelmed and considering suicide (and in many cases have attempted suicide), did you want to die, or did you need for someone to turn off the treadmill?”