In this time of COVID-19, you are not alone if you’re feeling anxious, stressed, depressed and even suicidal.  Psychologists are concerned about the connection between the coronavirus and suicide. There is a new study that recently was done that projects an increase in “deaths of despair” and deaths from suicide related to the virus.The researchers pointed to several factors from the pandemic that could make problems worse, including:

  • The potential for a serious, even deadly infection from a previously unknown microbe.
  • An unprecedented economic shutdown.
  • Skyrocketing unemployment.
  • Months-long social isolation (mandated in many states), sometimes with no set end.
  • Uncertainty about treatment and prevention strategies.

Given the right tools, however, you can relate to the difficult feelings that may arise in conjunction withe these in a new way, and make this very stressful situation more workable. Millions of people are feeling tremendous stress. The coronavirus is taking a cumulative toll on the individual and national psyche, creating an undercurrent of dread that is increasingly sucking people into that undertow and creating an alarming potential link to the coronavirus and suicide. 

The Problem is not the Feelings, But How You Relate to Them

First of all, these difficult feelings are completely normal. Millions of people are feeling tremendous stress. The problem is not in the feelings, but in how we relate to them. You don’t have to get rid of these challenging feelings; the invitation is to change your relationship to them. So the first powerful way of working with these difficult feelings is this: feel them but don’t feed them.

In other words, stay with what you’re feeling in your body, and notice the tremendous urge to shoot into your head and start excessively thinking and obsessing. That’s our normal default, so it’s okay if you’re doing that. But notice this tendency, and try to stay with what you’re feeling – without feeding that feeling with all your spinning thoughts.

Another way to say this is: don’t believe everything you think! Left alone, every thought or feeling is totally harmless. Left alone, it’s like a campfire spark dissolving harmlessly into the nighttime sky. It just comes and goes. The problem is we don’t let it go. We obsess about that feeling, that thought, and therefore give it a power it doesn’t inherently have. By thinking about something all the time, we strengthen it, and feed it with our attention.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Let’s say you lost your job, have bills to pay, and you’re feeling super stressed. As difficult as it may be at first, try to just stay with that stressed out feeling. As counter-intuitive as it may appear, be curious and go directly into that feeling. Where are you feeling it? Does the feeling have a shape? Does it move around? Does it change? This will keep you in your body, out of your spinning head, and keep you grounded in what’s really happening.

In other words, what’s really happening is that you’re feeling a difficult feeling or sensation in your body. STAY WITH THAT. If you’re already spinning wildly in your head, and feel like you’re losing it, what you’re really losing is honest contact with your body. You’ve literally lost touch with your body and are spinning out of control in your head.

Physical Movement Tends to Take Attention Out of the Head and Brings it Back into the Body

This is one reason physical activity and exercise is so important now. Physical movement tends to take attention out of the head and brings it back into the body. So be sure to go for walks, a jog, or engage in any physical activity. Then notice how it can make you feel better, more grounded, less obsessed with your thoughts. Another great thing is to work with the earth, which is literally grounding (your body is your personal earth, so to speak). Do some gardening, yard work, or spend time in nature.

But the main practice, once again, is if you’re feeling out of control and super stressed, return to the raw and difficult sensation and feeling in your body, and notice how just being with that feeling starts to change it. You’ll probably notice how you want to keep kicking back up into your thinking head. Notice that tendency, then return to your body. It takes some guts at first, because the feeling is not pleasant (which is precisely why you want to get away from it and into your head). But the more you do this, the more you get the hang of it, the more you can stay in contact with what’s really happening.

Most People Who Take Their Own Lives Are Not Really Trying to Kill Themselves; They’re Trying to Kill Their Suffering

This is such an important point that here’s one tragic consequence when we’re NOT able to do this: it’s no coincidence that most adults who die by suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. I believe that most people who take their own lives are not really trying to kill themselves; they’re trying to kill their suffering. They’re trying to get rid of all that spinning around that’s happening in their head, that out-of-control stream of thoughts.

We ALL feel pain. No one will ever get rid of pain. But what exactly is pain? The next time you feel it, take a really close look. What is pain, really? It’s just a very uncomfortable and therefore unwanted sensation. Pain occurs in the body. Now take another close look and ask yourself this question, what exactly is suffering? Don’t pay lip service, look closely at this thing called “suffering.” What is it? Suffering is an inappropriate relationship to pain. Suffering is an inappropriate relationship to an unwanted feeling. And where does that occur? Suffering occurs in the mind or head. (This is why spiritual masters never get rid of pain, but they do get rid of suffering.) Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. This is a discovery that can LITERALLY SAVE YOUR LIFE.

Suffering is a sad story line we bring to unwanted sensations, and those miserable narratives that are generated in the head. When someone commits suicide with a firearm, the bullet is really aimed at ending the life of the wretched narrative, not life itself. The intention is good but the target is off. This information, as radical as it may appear, can put the real target in focus, and can literally save lives.

In Christianity, suicide is a mortal sin, and the Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark” or “bad shot.” Shoot through the narrative that is generated in the head, not the head itself. Put an end the inappropriate relationship – by staying with the feeling that’s in your body.

I’m not saying this is easy to do. Because of our lifelong habit of instantly thinking and obsessing about everything, it can take some practice to get the hang of this advice. And, once again, a bit of courage. Who wants to stay with unwanted feelings? Who wants to return to difficult sensations in the body?  But take at look at this even more subtle and foundational teaching: even the idea of “unwanted” or “difficult” or “painful” is already infected with thinking – that’s how fast all this happens, and why it can feel so out of control. “Unwanted” “difficult” and “painful” is already a commentary on what is really a neutral raw sensation.

Simple Does Not Mean Easy

This advice may seem patronizingly simple, but it comes not just from the wisdom traditions, but also much of psychology. The power of these teachings, in fact, comes from its simplicity. But simple does not mean easy. I recommend you put this advice into practice, give it a try and see what happens. What do you have to lose? You may be surprised at how effective these teachings are. How transforming – and even life saving – this advice might be.

Surrender to the power of these teachings – don’t surrender to the crazy thinking happening in your head. These teachings can disarm the complex modern mind, and then disarm you.

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, take this seriously. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 1-800-273-8255.

You’ll find another few posts on suicide here:

Relating to Suicide from a Buddhist Perspective

The Karmic Implications of Suicide

My book, Preparing to Die, may also be helpful in understanding the death and dying process.