A Cup of Coffee – Opinion: The Call of the Void

Linda Tate

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Photo credit: Linda Tate

Trigger warning: suicide

Let’s talk about something called, “The Call of the Void“. Have you ever heard of this? I hadn’t either until I moved to New York City and lived on the 28th floor of a skyrise building.

I’ve always been terrified of heights. I literally freeze when exposed to a high place, so I was shocked when I found myself gazing out of our window on the 28th floor, almost feeling pulled…mesmerized…by the height. At one point, I became worried that I may be suicidal. Why was I doing this? This was wild and so unlike me!

I next encountered it when I was in my husband’s office, on the 78th floor of the Empire State Building. He was working late, and I remember standing at the window, looking out over the city, and taking the picture that is up at the beginning of this blog. The pull was incredible. I had goosebumps it was so strong. I remember being thankful that the windows only opened a couple of inches to keep everyone safe.

You are not alone

Turns out, many people have felt the call of the void. People on cruise liners think about jumping into the ocean, people crossing bridges fantasize about driving off the bridge or, if walking, they think of jumping off, people driving down the road suddenly think about turning their car into a tree or telephone pole, or there are those who contemplate stepping in front of a subway or train.

So this week, I researched this phenomenon. What is it? What causes it? Does it indicate a mental health problem? Here are the answers I found.

Let’s start by identifying it

The call of the void is that feeling when you stand in a high place and think about jumping, but don’t actually want to and don’t actually do it. While unnerving, it’s actually a pretty common experience.

What it feels like, and what it’s not

Have you ever stood on a balcony, leaned over the edge, and unexpectedly thought, “If I wanted to, I could just jump?” Most likely, you then felt shocked at the fact that you even had that notion, right?

I want to be clear. We aren’t talking about someone who plans their death and then rehearses it in their head. That is suicidal ideation, and that is not this. This is different. In these cases, the people thinking these thoughts don’t want to die. It’s not even a vague thought in their mind. They are just suddenly (and “suddenly” being the keyword here) overcome with the idea of jumping, or driving their car headfirst into another car. You get the idea.

While this is common, it has not been commonly studied

There are very few scientific experiments regarding this phenomenon.

LiveScience reports: “The first significant study on the phenomenon, published in 2012 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, surveyed 431 undergraduate students, and found that just over half of those who had never had suicidal thoughts had experienced aspects of the phenomenon at least once, whereas over 75% of lifetime suicide ideators, or people who have suicidal thoughts or ideas, reported experiencing the urge to jump from the window of a tall building or from a bridge. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.)

The study showcased, for the first time, that there was not an exclusive link between suicidal ideation and experiencing sudden, unanticipated thoughts related to placing oneself in imminent danger. In effect, the study determined that there was a clear difference between an individual imagining the possibility of leaping from a high place and wanting to act on it.”

What are some theories about this call?

Until this study was completed, researchers hypothesized that the call of the void could be a ‘misinterpreted safety signal,’ with those experiencing it potentially misreading the brain encouraging them to move away from danger — and the results seem to support this theory.

In other words, the people experiencing this, actually want to live, which is why their brains are alerting them to the potential to fall/jump.

LiveScience goes on to say that “individuals with higher self-reported anxiety levels were more likely to have felt the call than those with lower self-reported levels of anxiety. As a result, the study’s lead researcher, Jennifer Hames, who did the research as a clinical psychologist at Florida State University and is now an assistant clinical professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, concluded that somewhat paradoxically, the call of the void could well be a person’s subconscious attempting to encourage a greater appreciation of what it feels like to be alive, as opposed to wanting to lure someone to their demise. Indeed, the study seems to indicate that the call of the void could indicate that someone has a higher than average degree of sensitivity when it comes to experiencing and interpreting internal cues.”

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre stated it’s “a moment of Existentialist truth about the human freedom to choose to live or die.” There’s the “vertigo of possibility” – when humans contemplate dangerous experiments in freedom. The idea is that we can choose to do this, or not.

Should I be concerned if I feel this frequently?

As always, this blog is not a replacement for medical advice. If you are concerned, it is always wise to seek counsel from your doctor or other health care professional. If you would like to speak to an Osteopathic Doctor (DO) about your symptoms, you will find a link below that can introduce you to what a DO is, and then decide if that might be a doctor you would want on your team of health care providers.

That’s all I have for you this week, dear reader. I’ll see you back here next Wednesday to share another cup of coffee. Until then, be good to yourself and each other.

Mind, Body, Spirit…Osteopathic Doctors treat the whole person, not just the ailment. Is your PCP a DO? Would you like to learn more about Osteopathic Physicians? Click HERE!

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I am the Communications Director for the Northwest Osteopathic Medical Foundation. A Cup of Coffee is a health and wellness blog that can sometimes be very humorous. We hope you enjoy the blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Feel free to view our page at www.nwosteo.org

Canby, OR
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