Have you ever stood on a roof, a bridge, a ledge, or any other high place and wondered, “What if I jumped?” This urge probably came out of nowhere and disappeared as swiftly as it arrived.
Turns out, this urge has a name. The call of the void (in French, l’appel du vide) describes this impulse to hurl yourself into, well, a void. While unnerving, it’s actually a pretty common experience. It also has nothing to do with suicidal ideation.
In fact, a 2012 study — the only one exploring this phenomenon to date — suggests this urge may have a relatively straightforward, scientific explanation.
The call of the void is also known as high place phenomenon (HPP), since people often feel it when standing somewhere high up. You could also experience this type of impulse when doing other things that involve a high risk of danger.
For example, call of the void can involve thoughts or urges to:
- jerk the steering wheel and turn into oncoming traffic while driving
- jump into very deep water from a boat or bridge
- stand on train or subway tracks or jump in front of a train
- cut yourself when holding a knife or other sharp object
- put a metal object into an electrical outlet
- stick your hand into a fire or garbage disposal
When these urges come up, you quickly counter them, telling yourself you’d never do that. You know what would happen in any of those scenarios. But you still think about doing it, however quickly the thought passes.
Yep, this feeling is both normal and common.
The authors of that 2012 study found that among 431 students:
- More than half of those who reported never having suicidal thoughts experienced HPP in some way, either imagining jumping or having an urge to jump.
- About three-quarters of those who had previously experienced some kind of suicidal ideation experienced HPP.
- People with more sensitivity to anxiety symptoms but fewer suicidal thoughts seemed more likely to experience HPP
No one knows for sure. The authors of the first and only study (so far) to look at HPP have offered a bit of insight.
After interviewing 431 undergrad students with varying mental health backgrounds, they concluded that HPP is likely related to the wiring of your brain.
When you look down from a high place, or are in some other potentially dangerous situation, your brain sends a warning signal, like “Back up!” or “Don’t touch that!”
This signal happens quickly, and you instinctively back up, perhaps without realizing why. Then, when you think about what happened, you might mistakenly assume the safety warning was actually a desire to jump (or stick your hand in the fire).
Why does your brain go there? If you don’t really want to die or harm yourself, why would you imagine jumping?
That’s where anxiety sensitivity may come in. The authors found that people with higher anxiety sensitivity, or fear of anxiety symptoms, are more likely to experience HPP.
Anxiety sensitivity often involves things like believing a pounding heartbeat indicates a heart attack or that panic symptoms mean you may faint, or even die.
Those with higher anxiety sensitivity, suggest the authors, may be more likely to interpret a signal they don’t understand as something dangerous.
This study didn’t conclusively prove the mechanism of this signaling system, and it had several other limitations.
Though the sample of participants was fairly large, all were students, and most were white. It also only looked at one sample, so conducting more research with a broader, more diverse group may offer more supporting evidence.
The authors also pointed out that sensation seeking could play a part in HPP and suggest this as a consideration for further research. They also noted the need for more research on how anxiety sensitivity plays a part in this phenomenon.
When it comes down to it, you most likely don’t need to feel concerned about experiencing the call of the void. Remember, you’re in good company. A lot of people have the same thoughts and urges, even if they don’t say anything about them.
In most cases, these thoughts don’t have a serious or significant meaning. There’s no evidence to suggest they play a part in any mental health condition or suicidal ideation when they happen on their own and don’t cause you lasting distress.
If you feel worried about the possible underlying meaning, consider what your reaction to these thoughts tells you. By stepping away from a window or ledge, by not turning your car into traffic, by reassuring yourself you’d never do those things, you’re acting on your desire to keep living.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the call of the void can seem a lot like suicidal ideation. If you experience suicidal thoughts, you may be more likely to experience the call of the void, as well.
Many people have thoughts of suicide without ever making a clear suicide plan or even having the intention of acting on them. It’s still best to talk to a professional if you do have thoughts of suicide, especially if they persist over time.
It’s also a good idea to talk to someone if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety, including:
- frequent worries
- trouble concentrating
- sudden or rapid mood changes
- sleeplessness or difficulty getting out of bed
- feelings of doom
- persistent loneliness
Symptoms often get worse without treatment, so it’s usually a good idea to seek help right away. It’s especially important to talk to a professional if your symptoms suddenly get worse, keep you from doing things you need to do, or affect your quality of life in any way.
These impulses can also be considered intrusive thoughts if they happen again and again and get in the way of your daily life.
Intrusive thoughts happen to most people from time to time. On their own, they generally aren’t a cause for concern.
They can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so it’s best to talk to a therapist or your healthcare provider if you experience frequent intrusive thoughts, especially if:
- they cause distress
- they happen constantly
- they keep you from doing things you want to do
- you need to perform some type of behavior in order to relieve them
If you’re among those who experience the call of the void, it’s usually nothing to worry about. It’s just one of those interesting, mildly scary, not-yet-fully-understood weird tricks of the brain that a lot of people experience.
If this urge does happen along with thoughts of suicide, if you consider actually acting on it, or even if it just bothers you a little, talk to a mental health professional as soon as you can.