What Is Self-Harm And Ways To Stop It

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Self-Harm And Ways To Stop It

People who self-harm purposefully inflict bodily harm on themselves. Self-harm can include behavior like cutting, burning yourself with cigarettes, punching yourself etc and may be a way of coping with difficult emotions or life circumstances. To stop this behavior, it is important to understand the reasons, identify triggers, and find ways of coping. Cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy can be useful.

If you harm yourself as a way of coping with emotional distress, you should know that you’re not alone. It is estimated that around 1 in 100 people deliberately inflict bodily harm on themselves.1 Self-harming behavior tends to start when you’re a teenager or an early adult and can include cutting yourself, punching something (say, a wall), punching yourself, burning yourself with candles, matches, or cigarettes, breaking your bones, pulling out your hair etc. The most common form of self-harm seems to be skin cutting, with almost 70% of people who purposefully harm themselves resorting to this method.2

Why Do You Harm Yourself?

It’s important to figure out why you might be hurting yourself. Only when you understand the function self-harming serves can you find other ways to address those needs. Here are a few reasons why people generally harm themselves. See if any of these ring true to you:

  • It’s an expression of feelings that you can’t communicate or a release of tension and pain.
  • It helps you feel in control.
  • It is a means of punishing yourself or relieving guilt.
  • It is a way of distracting yourself from difficult circumstances or overwhelming emotions.
  • You feel numb and hurting yourself is a way of feeling something.3

Why Should You Stop?

If self-harming is helping you deal with difficult feelings or experiences, you might question why you need to stop. Here’s why:

It’s A Short-Term Solution

While you might experience temporary relief when you self-harm, this feeling of relief is typically followed by negative feelings like guilt and shame. Besides, it does nothing to address the underlying reason for this behavior and keeps you from learning better ways of coping with problems.

It Affects Your Relationships

Most people who self-harm do so in secret. This secrecy can ultimately be isolating and damaging to relationships with family and friends.

You Might Get Hurt

You might get badly hurt even if that’s not your intention. For instance, if you cut yourself, you could misjudge the depth of a wound or even catch an infection.

You’re At Risk For Other Problems

This unhealthy way of dealing with emotional pain may also mean you’re missing out on the opportunity to learn effective strategies of coping. This puts you at risk for other problems like addiction, depression, and even suicide.

It’s Addictive

Self-harm may start off as just an impulse that you give in to and may even give you a feeling of greater control initially. But it can turn into something compulsive and spin out of control. But know that while it can be dangerous and leave you feeling helpless, you can overcome the urge to self-harm and find other ways to cope with your problems.

How Can You Stop Self-Harm?

Here are a few steps you can put in place today to stop this harmful behavior.

Talk To Someone

Confiding in someone can be that important first step toward stopping self-harm. Though it may feel scary at first, sharing your secret can actually be a huge relief. Talk to someone who is supportive and accepting. You could choose a teacher, friend, relative, religious leader, or counselor. It doesn’t even need to be someone whom you’re close to. In fact, you may find it easier to talk to an adult who has a little distance from you as they may be more objective.

Here are a few tips to guide your conversation:

Dig deeper instead of just recounting the behavior: Focus on feelings and situations that make you harm yourself rather than give an account of the behavior itself. This can help the person who’s listening understand better. Also, try to state why you’re telling them. For instance, do you need advice? Are you just looking to tell someone so that you can be free of this secret?

Find a comfortable way of expressing yourself: Choose a way of communicating that feels comfortable. For instance, you might want to start off with an email first if you’re nervous about talking face to face. And remember there’s no pressure to talk about things you’re not ready to share.

Brace yourself: Be prepared for the fact that the person you’re sharing with may not respond the way you want them to. This conversation can be especially difficult for someone who’s close to you. So keep in mind that reactions like fear, anger, and shock finally stem from concern for you. In fact, it might be a good idea to give the person you’re talking to information about self-harming beforehand (say, by giving them articles to read) so that they can better understand and support you.4

Understand Your Triggers

Understanding why you harm yourself is a critical step toward recovery. Identify triggers which give you the urge to hurt yourself. These can be situations, people, certain occasions, feelings, sensations, or thoughts. Also, learn to identify the urge to self-harm. Urges can include a feeling of heaviness, a racing heart, a feeling of disconnectedness, overworking, repetitive thoughts like, “I need to cut myself” etc. When you start to recognize your urges, you can take steps to minimize or prevent self-harm.5

Keeping a diary can be an effective way of understanding and identifying your triggers and urges. Jot down what happens after, during, and before you self-harm. Pay attention to your feelings, thoughts, situations, people who were around you etc. It can be quite difficult to focus on your feelings rather than releasing or numbing them, but you will find that painful emotions and feelings eventually pass and fade – if you just let them go without fighting or judging them. If you find it distressing to keep a diary on your own, ask for support from someone you trust.6

Find Other Ways To Cope

Distracting yourself when you feel the urge to self-harm can be quite effective at preventing harmful behavior. If you can divert your mind or delay self-harming behavior, the urge usually passes. But what works for one person may not work for another. Take a look at the tips given below to see what could work for you.

To Express Intense Feelings

  • Scribble, paint, or draw.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Compose a song or poem.
  • Write down distressing feelings and then tear up the paper.

To Feel Calm

  • Have a relaxing bath or warm shower.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Snuggle into a blanket.
  • Take a bath or hot shower.
  • Massage your hands, feet, or neck.
  • Listen to soothing music.

If You Feel Numb

  • Talk to a friend.
  • Place an ice cube against the crook of your leg or arm.
  • Chew on something like peppermint or chilli which has a strong taste.
  • Go to a self-help site or chat room.

If You Feel Tense Or Angry

  • Try some form of intense exercise. For instance, dance, jump rope, run, or work on a punching bag.
  • Scream into your pillow or hit a cushion.
  • Try using a stress ball.
  • Rip up some paper.

If You Want A Substitute For Cutting

  • Draw lines in the place where you usually cut with a red felt pen.
  • Rub ice on your skin where you usually cut.
  • Snap a rubber band across your skin instead of cutting.7 8

Professional Therapies For Self-Harm

If you’re finding it difficult to let go of self-harming behavior, don’t hesitate to get professional help. Remember, counselors and therapists are trained to help you heal. Effective treatments for self-harm involve learning new coping mechanisms and enabling you to have more control over a trigger.9

As a first step, you should reach out to a trusted adult or a medical professional. You will then be guided to a psychiatrist who will conduct what is known as a diagnostic interview, asking detailed questions about your health, life history, and incidences of self-harm. Your treatment plan will be formulated based on the information provided by you. So, trust your doctor with all the information that you can give about your condition, putting aside any negative feelings such as shame. Medication such as antidepressants may be prescribed based on any underlying illness.10

Different kinds of therapy that may be used to help with self-harm include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy with problem-solving components will help you recognize negative thought patterns and work on expanding your coping skills.11

Dialectical behavioral therapy will help you learn effective and positive coping methods and help you overcome what seem to be intolerable and inescapable life situations.12

Psychodynamic therapy will focus on understanding your past experiences and the resultant emotions that impact your present behavior. You will be able to look beyond the anger, disappointment, and frustrations that you feel, be able to modify your behavior and steer towards positive outcomes from various situations.13

If your condition is severe, your doctor may recommend a short hospital stay where you will be in a safe environment and all your energy can be focused on your treatment.

References   [ + ]

1.Self-harm. U.S Department of Health and Human Services.
2.Herpertz, Stephan. “Self‐injurious behavior: Psychopathological and nosological characteristics in subtypes of self‐injurers.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 91, no. 1 (1995): 57-68.
3, 5, 7.Cutting and Self-Harm. Helpguide.org.
4.Cutting and Self-Harm. Helpguide.org.
6.Self-harm. Mind.
8.How Can I Stop Cutting?. Nemours Foundation.
9.Pattison, Sue, Maggie Robson, and Ann Beynon, eds. The Handbook of Counselling Children & Young People. Sage, 2014.
10.Martinez, Carlos, Stephan Rietbrock, Lesley Wise, Deborah Ashby, Jonathan Chick, Jane Moseley, Stephen Evans, and David Gunnell. “Antidepressant treatment and the risk of fatal and non-fatal self harm in first episode depression: nested case-control study.” Bmj 330, no. 7488 (2005): 389.
11. Slee, Nadja, Nadia Garnefski, Rien van der Leeden, Ella Arensman, and Philip Spinhoven. “Cognitive–behavioral intervention for self-harm: randomised controlled trial.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 192, no. 3 (2008): 202-211.
12.Linehan, Marsha M. “Dialectical behavioral therapy: A cognitive behavioral approach to parasuicide.” Journal of Personality disorders 1, no. 4 (1987): 328-333.
13. Levy, Kenneth N., Frank E. Yeomans, and Diana Diamond. “Psychodynamic treatments of self‐injury.” Journal of clinical psychology 63, no. 11 (2007): 1105-1120.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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