Preventing Suicide: The Power of Resilience and Positive Emotions

Suicide is a growing public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates in the United States have increased by over 30% since 1999. It is currently the 10th leading cause of death overall and the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-34. With these alarming statistics, suicide prevention efforts are more critical than ever.

One approach to suicide prevention focuses on building resilience and cultivating positive emotions. As trauma survivor and clinical social worker Dr. Louise Stanger explains, “Positive emotions build resilience – the emotional resources needed for coping. They broaden our awareness, letting us see more options for problem-solving and feeling good.” Research shows that positive emotions help people adapt and bounce back from stressful experiences. Activities and practices that evoke positive emotions may strengthen resilience and act as an important protective factor against suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The Biology of Emotions

To understand how positive emotions build resilience, it helps to know a little bit about the biology of emotions. When we experience an emotion, whether positive or negative, our brains release neurochemicals that influence how we think, feel, and behave. Fear, for example, triggers the release of adrenaline to prepare the body for danger. Anger releases cortisol to energize us to take action. Love releases oxytocin to promote trust and bonding. Each emotion has a purpose and is linked to biological processes that support our survival.

Positive emotions like joy, interest, pride, awe, and amusement spark the release of dopamine and serotonin. These “feel-good” chemicals boost mood, energy, focus, and motivation. They open us up to new ideas and pursuits by broadening our perspective. Research shows that regular experiences of positive emotion can make us more resilient when faced with stress or adversity.

The Power of Positive Emotional Memories

The emotional memories we accumulate throughout our lives shape how we see the world and cope with difficulties. Studies show that we tend to remember and recall positive emotional experiences more vividly than negative ones. This phenomenon, known as the “fading affect bias,” demonstrates the power of positivity.

When faced with a crisis or challenge, we often draw upon positive emotional memories to help bolster and motivate us. Trauma survivor professional interventionist Dr. Louise Stanger reflects on how learning archery at summer camp helped build her resilience after her father’s sudden death. She states:

“The question I ponder is what part of my brain stored this wonderful event, this ‘god shot’, that I learned at age 8 to allow me to experience the same joy at age 66 on a cold snowy mountain in Bhutan and at age 76 on my arrival to the Golden Door, to hit yet another bullseye and to experience the same enthusiasm and joy.”

The positive emotion Dr. Stanger felt while mastering archery got encoded into her memory and became an emotional touchstone she could re-experience throughout her life. By regularly cultivating positive emotions, we build up a reservoir of positive memories that strengthen resilience when faced with hardship.

Strategies for Preventing Suicide

There are many evidence-based strategies for preventing suicide. Since strengthening resilience and positive emotions can be protective, incorporating activities and practices that tap into the biology of positive emotion is recommended. Here are some key ways to do this:

  • Physical activity – Exercise promotes the release of endorphins which improve mood and reduce stress. Regular physical activity also builds self-efficacy. 
  • Creative pursuits – Activities like art, music, writing, or crafting allow self-expression and “flow.” They spark curiosity and positive emotions like joy and interest. 
  • Meditation and mindfulness – Mindfulness practices are proven to reduce anxiety and depression while increasing positive emotions, self-acceptance, and resilience. Meditation also boosts serotonin and dopamine. 
  • Gratitude practice – Studies show that cultivating gratitude through journaling or reflection on a daily basis increases positive affect and life satisfaction. 
  • Savoring positive experiences – Taking time to actively enjoy positive moments and events can extend and amplify their emotional benefits. Sharing positive events with others also boosts their mood-enhancing effects. 
  • Building positive relationships – Social connection is vital for emotional health. Nurturing relationships that provide meaning and mutual support enhances positive emotions. 
  • Positive psychotherapy – This therapeutic approach uses techniques like identifying strengths, reappraising situations more positively, and envisioning your best self to build positivity, efficacy, and resilience.

While positive practices strengthen resilience, Dr. Stanger also notes the importance of acknowledging one’s limits: “Be honest with yourself about what you can or can’t do. Focus on your strengths and derive your self-confidence from them. Admit that you can’t do everything.” Self-awareness and self-acceptance allow us to identify and use our unique strengths and abilities for self-care and coping.

In addition to boosting positive emotion, comprehensive suicide prevention requires reducing risk factors like untreated mental illness, trauma, isolation, and access to lethal means. However, strengthening resilience through positivity represents a proactive protective approach that empowers individuals and communities.

As Dr. Stanger’s experience shows, positive emotional memories can be a lifeline that helps us bounce back from darkness. By actively cultivating positivity and resilience, we create the internal resources to survive hardship and find hope.


This article features branded content from a third party. Opinions in this article do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of CEO Weekly.