The inevitable suffering of human life takes on a vastly different meaning in a culture that values pleasure and convenience above all else. In some spiritual traditions, the suffering of life is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual elevation; in others, our suffering is necessary to repay our past sins or karma.
When the suffering of life has no meaning, however, and is seen as nothing more than a contradiction to the promises we’ve heard over television and the internet—that we should all have what we want, when we want it, and enjoy every minute of whatever it is—then we can’t help but feel our suffering is inherently unjust. Yet, the more we expect life to be easy and entertaining, the less we are able to accept and navigate the constant unease that is the actual truth of the human condition.
Consider all that together with a culture that constantly seduces us into easy pleasures that leave us ever more dissatisfied—from social media that breaks our sense of self-worth, to a consumer culture that saps our financial reserves—and you gain additional hardship in place of any supposed improvements in quality of life.
The final insult is that we are constantly losing those things that gave humans true satisfaction in life, like meaningful social connections, spiritual community, and downtime to relax with others or engage in our own pursuits, be they fishing or knitting.
Amid a rise in loneliness, depression, and anxiety, and a loss of worldviews that make suffering meaningful, too many people are resorting to an extreme and final end to their pain; yet, rather than viewing suicide as the epidemic it is, many well-intentioned people are normalizing it or even advocating for it.
There’s no shortage of statistics when it comes to suicide, and each analysis invites some insight and speculation. According to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, which saw nearly 46,000 suicides in 2020. Most were middle-aged white men.
On average, men kill themselves 3.6 times more often than women, and white men commit suicide more than twice as often as African American or Asian males, according to the latest published statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the AFSP, white men accounted for almost 70 percent of suicides in 2017. Some experts believe that men kill themselves more often because they are incapable of asking for help, showing weakness, or admitting when they have problems. Suicide isn’t solely a male issue, however.
Although fewer women die by their own hands, attempted suicides are more prevalent among them—it’s known as the gender pardox in suicide, and it exists in other countries as well. Sarah Epstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Dallas, said women may die in fewer numbers because they usually employ less lethal means, such as taking pills.
Our middle-aged population suffers the most suicides, but teen suicide is also up—between 1999 and 2014, the rate increased by 33 percent. Each year since 2016, more teens die by suicide than by car accidents.
Beyond the larger cultural trends that are driving an unfathomable rise in suicide, each of us faces our own unique pain. Whether a suicide victim is young or old, male or female, every death leaves those left behind to wonder why: What was it that haunted our friends, co-workers, spouses, or children so much that they took their own lives?
The details of each suicide story are different; but, is there a common denominator? Many researchers have found a strong link between depression and suicide, but some believe that there may be another major cause that is often overlooked.
Anxiety and Suicide
Dr. David Hanscom has devoted years to suicide study. Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who quit practicing surgery in 2019 to focus on helping people go pain-free without surgery. He has lost numerous friends and colleagues to suicide over the course of his career, and also had his own struggle with suicidal impulses.
To be clear, suicidal tendancy isn’t triggered by an occasional twinge of anxiety, but something constant. The upside to anxiety is hyper focus and alertness when a situation demands it; carrying that emotion around all the time and applying it to every situation, however, becomes self destructive. “When we’re put under a tremendous amount of stress and have no resources to process it, the only thing we know how to do is simply suppress our stresses,” said Hanscom.
As our world enters a time of common decline, when we sense that everything around us is less than it once was, it’s easy to face difficulties with negative thoughts: nothing lasts the way it used to, nobody has the time they once did, people seem meaner and more selfish, on and on.
A Life and Death Emotion
We’re all familiar with anxiety because it’s fundamental to our survival; it flares up whenever we face an immediate or perceived threat, jolting us with an alarming impulse to either fight or flee. While this feeling forces us into action, it’s uncomfortable by design and works best in small doses. If the fight-or-flight state wears on without letting up, it can slowly grind us down.
It takes a toll, not just on the mind, but also on the physical body. When we’re constantly surging with elevated stress hormones, the body is on fire, in a biochemical sense. Prolonged stress causes inflammation, and prolonged inflammation causes illness. That’s why modern science identifies chronic stress as a high risk factor for serious illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
A review published in June 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that “chronic inflammation is an essential component of chronic diseases.” Researchers weren’t able to point to one particular mechanism responsible for this effect, but they concluded that stress reduction exercises, deep breathing, and yoga could effectively decrease inflammatory side effects.
Because chronic stress can lead to a host of illnesses, it can also feed a toxic cycle, since illness can become a major source of stress, depression, and other issues. Hanscom believes that some people commit suicide for this reason also. “Anxiety is an inflamed nervous system,” said Hanscom. “Other symptoms include depression, migraine headaches, back pain, neck pain, irritable bowel, spastic bladder, skin rashes, ringing in the ears—all sorts of stuff happens when your body’s physiology is stuck in fight-or-flight.”
Suicide is the most extreme way in which people try to escape chronic stress. Other self-destructive coping mechanisms include drinking, taking drugs, and overeating. Resolving stress is a critical factor in combating the suicide epidemic.
Sources of Stress
Childhood trauma is often associated with troubling thoughts that induce stress. You can see it at work in something called an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score. The more traumatic childhood events we endure, the higher our risk for suicide, substance abuse, and other diseases.
“If your score is five or more, you have double the chance of suicide, heart disease, and obesity,” said Hanscom. “When you’re raised in an abusive household, you’re always on high alert—you don’t know how to feel safe—but when you become an adult who actually is safe, your brain doesn’t know the difference. So, it takes less stress to fire up a fight-or-flight response if you have a high ACE score.”
It isn’t only the downtrodden, unemployed, and painfully ill who die by suicide, however. Hanscom remembers one 18-month period of his life in which six of his highly successful friends killed themselves. They were all males between the ages of 45 and 60. One was a chiropractor, another owned a restaurant. Each one had millions of dollars, a family, and was an integral part of a community. So why would guys who seemingly had it all want to end their lives?
“There’s something called anxiety with success. I had the same thing. I had a beautiful home, family, kids, a successful practice, and a reputation—it was all the things you could imagine—and I was miserable,” said Hanscom. “That drive to be excellent is the same drive that takes you down. It’s the same thing whether you’re a physician or an athlete.”
A good job is its own reward, but some people pursue success because that’s what they’ve been programmed to do. We live in a time of hyper competition. Rarely has popular culture focused so intently on battling factions, whether they be reality TV contestants aiming to outlast each other on a tropical island, or digital characters battling in a vast online realm.
Feelings of failure to measure up also enter into social media. Researchers say that more study is needed to prove that living in the peculiar culture of online social discourse actually fuels suicidal thoughts, but the rise in teen suicide coincides with the spread of social media, suggesting that it’s a pattern that deserves attention.
Calm Your Mind, Cool Your Body
While sources of stress are often outside of our control, stress and anxiety are internal reactions. We can’t escape them, but there’s much we can do to restrain them. The key is to minimize time spent in fight-or-flight mode.
Instead of trying to suppress unpleasant repetitive thoughts, Hanscom recommends expressive writing as a way to acknowledge them and let them go. The act of quickly jotting down the thoughts that constantly circle through your mind is an exercise in capturing your inner dialogue. You needn’t worry about punctuation, narrative, or continuity, the objective is to get what’s in your head onto the page.
“This is the number one intervention,” said Hanscome, noting that there are hundreds of studies that support expressive writing as an effective intervention to break loose from obsessive thought patterns.
Meanwhile, avoid stoking flames. If violent movies, cable news, or social media leaves you agitated, then keep your distance from that bad influence. Instead, consider spending more time with supportive friends and family, in turn stimulating your body to produce oxytocin, a powerful anti-inflammatory chemical that medication simply can’t match. A 2020 review of the chemical found that “oxytocin has the capacity to act as a ‘natural medicine’ protecting against stress and illness,” while the “unique characteristics of the oxytocin molecule” make it challenging to turn into a drug.
Some people in your life might be less than supportive; learn to let it go, and reflect on the price you personally pay for any resentment you carry. Hanscom said that the vast majority of people unable to resolve their chronic pain also fail to forgive those who caused their injuries. Chronic pain is a significant contributor to suicide, while forgiveness is a balm for the body and soul.
Forgiveness can take time, but some issues are immediately addressable. For example, when you feel anxiety start to flare up, do something to stimulate your vagus nerve. The vagus, meaning “wanderer,” is so named because of how much territory it covers in the body—it’s the body’s longest nerve—and it’s acutely associated with the rest and digest state, the body’s counter to fight-or-flight mode. Activities like humming, singing, and breathing exercises have all shown to have a calming effect on this special nerve.
There are techniques to reduce your inflammation as well. Exercise can be highly anti-inflammatory. It’s also good to steer clear of foods that cause an inflammatory response, such as refined carbs, fried foods, and sugar; instead, eat more vegetables, fatty fish, and nuts.
And don’t forget the most important anti-inflammatory behavior: sleep. “When I’m dealing with people with mental or physical pain issues, I just have to get them to sleep. Nothing else really works until they’re actually sleeping,” said Hanscom. “Lack of sleep is inflammatory—there’s research that shows that lack of sleep actually causes chronic low back pain—it’s not the other way around.”
Finally, instead of focusing on what you’re anxious or angry about all the time, make some space for your hopes and dreams. “What brings you joy? What do you want? From a neuroplasticity standpoint, your brain will focus on what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Hanscom.