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micro skill

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2018 winners of the award at

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If you trip and fall while walking across the street, what are the chances you will skin your knees?

Most can relate to a time when something like this happened to us. How hard we fell determined the extent of our injury.

The human experience of physically tripping is normal and painful. But another experience of emotionally tripping, also can be painful. But that’s another kind of pain.

Significant emotional events such as divorce, illness and death of a loved one, along with personal struggles with mental health, can result in an emotional trip. Such trips can result in intense moments or periods of time when powerful emotions such as hopelessness become all-consuming and painful. It’s normal in such a heightened emotional state for the brain to present unconscious thoughts that lead to one questioning whether life is worth living, or thinking of suicide to stop the pain.

The topic of suicide and mental illness has been more prominent in the past few weeks with the recent deaths of TV host Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade.

Without context and knowledge, these unexpected, powerful unconscious thoughts (that can persist over time) can fool a person into believing they are true and the best course to follow, when in fact, they’re not. Such suicidal thoughts typically are generated by the unconscious brain, which doesn’t evaluate thoughts as being good or bad, right or wrong; just an option.

These thoughts often come from the same place as those that come when we get cut off by another car and want to honk, yell or take other action. Most of us don’t act on these thoughts. Why? The powerful, executive logical part of our brain says that would not be a good choice. We ignore them and move on with our day, to avoid getting into trouble or even a situation dangerous to our safety.

This micro skill introduces emotional trips and how to cope with them, especially when suicidal thoughts bubble to the surface.

Approximately 11 people in Canada take their own lives each day, another 210 attempt suicide, and many more think about it but don’t act, because they’re able to work through their emotional trip and find a better alternative.

The more we as a society talk, educate and normalize that when people experience major, stressful life events they may also have suicidal thoughts, the greater the chance we can prevent suicide.


Most of us can relate to unwanted stress. What we may not understand is that when bad stress is intense it can turn off the rational, problem-solving part of the brain. The emotional part of the brain doesn’t reason or solve problems; it only reacts to make us feel better.

When the conscious brain shuts off, we move from cognitive coping (for example, problem solving) to emotional coping (for example, doing something to feel better, like eating). In this mind state, the emotional brain is not equipped to debate suicidal thinking the same way our conscious brain can. People who act on road rage have moved to their emotional brain. They become dangerous as they zone out from logic and reason.


One way to avoid allowing our emotional brain to trick us when faced with suicidal thoughts is to accept that this is normal during an emotional trip. They’re nothing more than thoughts. With awareness, accountability and action, they can be removed as fast as they come.

Stigma, shame and pain are reasons why some people who are struggling in an emotional trip don’t ask for help. Many who have had an emotional trip that included suicidal thinking and worked through it are happy they didn’t act on those thoughts and are alive today.

One challenge with suicidal thoughts is that the emotional brain doesn’t think, debate or rationalize. It only looks for a way to feel better – and logic and reasons are not an option for it. The more we can educate people in times of need that there are better alternatives, the more we can promote a sense of hope.


If you’re aware and accept that emotional trips can happen to anyone, you’ll be more prepared to act. Preparation can provide knowledge and hope to move through an emotional trip and any negative or suicidal thoughts you have and find better alternatives.

· Explore and learn more about suicide signs and prevention. Learn before emotional trips to avoid their impact.

· If you feel overwhelmed and struggling, one way to focus on problem solving is to complete the Are You Questioning the Worth of Living? quick survey. This survey provides some suggestions as to what you can do to move from your emotional brain to your logical brain.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or visit Or you can go to your local hospital emergency room for help; call 911; call the Morneau Shepell crisis support line at 1-844-751-2133; or visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website to find a 24-hour crisis centre in your area.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

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