by Mitch Radin, Clinical Psychologist
Having a serious illness or chronic pain can be scary. It can make people feel ways they have never felt and think thoughts they’ve never had before. When people start to experience new feelings and thoughts, especially thoughts that feel bad, it can be perceived as a loss of control. But thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings. When put in the context of their origins they become meaningful (literally full of meaning) and are information that can help patients and their providers understand what is happening with them.
Let’s take thoughts of death as an example. When people who have never managed depression or had thoughts of dying before, hit their limit with pain or exhaustion from an illness, it’s common to have thoughts of death and suicide. Suicidal thoughts should always be taken seriously and discussed with a trusted family member, friend, crisis line, or provider. However, people are often surprised by what happens when they start to talk. Hardly do they consider is that these thoughts are normal in the context of severe physical or mental distress and that there is a big difference between thoughts and actions.
Just having a thought about death doesn’t mean people want to die, and having a suicidal thought is not a measure of intention. Failure to recognize this often results in a reluctance to disclose thoughts and feelings for fear of what others will think, or a missed opportunity to understand that just having a thought about suicide does not mean it will be acted on. This is a big loss and only promotes a sense of isolation and increased anxiety over whether someone is “losing it.”
The use of suicide is an extreme example, but it brings to the fore the ability to feel and have thoughts without judgment. Some thoughts may feel uncomfortable, but they can be useful indicators of our level of distress, which can give us opportunities to be kinder to ourselves and even get the support we need.