To Survive Your Suicidal Crisis, Live One Day at a Time

You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

In my video,“ Your Pain Is Not Forever,” I explained how all crises, including suicidal ones, are time-limited. Therefore, if you can keep yourself alive, you can feel confident that one day your ordeal will ultimately come to an end.

Holding on to life, however, is easier said than done. When I was in the middle of my suicidal episode, even though I believed that one day it would end, my pain was so agonizing that the prospect of long-term relief seemed impossible.  I shared my dilemma with my therapist Pat, and she offered some guidance:

“I understand your problem,” she said. “As a recovering alcoholic, it’s virtually impossible for me to conceive of not drinking for the rest of my life. However, in AA we have something called the ‘24-hour plan.’ Instead of promising never to drink again, we focus on keeping sober for the current twenty-four hours. I suggest that you do something similar.

“To survive your suicidal crisis, live one day at a time. You don’t need a grand scheme of recovery. You don’t need to know the details of how things will work out. You just need to survive day by day and step by step, and you will see your way to safety.” 

Pat was right. Whenever I contemplated the prospect of dealing with my suicidal pain over the long term, I would feel overwhelmed and hopeless. But if I could shift my focus to a single, 24-hour segment of time, that was something I could handle. If I could dedicate myself to surviving each day, then perhaps I could survive my ordeal.

How to Live One Day at a Time

Create Structure in Your Day

Adopting this “One Day at a Time” strategy requires that you stay as occupied as you can. If you have too much time on your hands, you run the risk of ruminating over your pain. Turn your mind outward instead by structuring your day so that it is filled with a series of simple events and activities that you can do. 

This may involve such activities as calling or spending time with a friend, calling a counselor, going on a walk, doing a prayer ritual, listening to music, walking to the community center, hiking in nature, or writing in a journal. And when the day comes to an end, you can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that you have made it through another 24 hours and that you are one day closer to the end of your ordeal. 

For more guidance on how to set up these activities, read Use Structure and Routine to Get Through the Day

The Importance of Staying in the Present

Another essential part of living one day at a time is to remain in the present moment. However, those of us who struggle with thoughts of suicide too often jump ahead to the future and think, When will my agony come to an end? The problem with asking this question is that the distorted suicidal brain will immediately answer, “NEVER. You are never going to get better. There is no way out of the abyss except by death. You might as well get it over with.“ At this point, your mind may turn to thoughts of self-harm.

This is what occurred when I was suicidal. I would look into my future and see only catastrophe and doom. Thoughts like “I can’t go on like this” or “I won’t live the rest of my life in this pain” further escalated my despair and hopelessness, and drew me closer to the act of suicide.

As a way to keep me safe, my counselor and I devised a simple but powerful three-step technique for responding to often catastrophic and despairing self-talk. We called this exercise “Back to the Present.“ I cannot recall how many times this simple process allowed me to endure a day, an hour, or a minute of intense pain. In giving me a way to manage my catastrophic (and potentially dangerous) thinking, this technique literally saved my life.

Activity: Back to the Present

When you find yourself engaging in catastrophic and despairing self-talk which results in suicidal thinking, here is what you can do:

  1. Notice what is happening. Become aware that your mind is dwelling on thoughts of catastrophe and doom. Do this by first identifying the catastrophic thought—(e.g., “I’ll never get better.”) Next, say out loud, “Cancel! Cancel!” Then take a deep breath and focus on your feet resting on the floor as you exhale. This will bring you back to the present reality.
  2. Realize that these thoughts are not about the present but about the future. Since the future has yet to occur, it cannot harm you.
  3. Refocus on the present moment through positive self-talk and constructive action. For example, you might replace the statement “I’ll never get better” with “This too shall pass” or “What self-care strategy can I choose right now to get me through this day?”

Usually, this means finding a way to distract yourself from the pain, such as by calling a friend, taking a walk around the block, listening to music, watching a video, doing a Sudoku puzzle, or taking an anti-anxiety medication (if your anxiety is super high).

Repeat this three-step process as often as you need to, even if it’s once every fifteen minutes. The more you can direct your mind away from the future and back to the present, the less despair you will feel.