What is Self-Harm?
To really understand how to stop self-harming, we first need to address what the nature of the condition entails and why it takes hold. At its core, it is rooted in the inability, or unwillingness to express emotions in a constructive manner, and through that suppression, another way must be found. What you suppress, must be expressed.
There are multiple ways harm can be inflicted; the most prevalent include cutting, burning, and banging of the head, which account for most documented cases. However, the act of self-harm isn’t always necessarily physical. Binge eating, excessive drinking, neglect and other knowing, reckless behaviours all fit the description.
Why Do People Self-Harm?
The common assumption is that those who engage in this behaviour are simply attention seekers, and whilst it is true there might be an element of a ‘cry for help’ in some instances, most guard their secret with great care, and seldom open up to others about their issues.
Some of the main causes include:
The Need to Regain Control – Whether mindfully, or on a sub-conscious level, the act of self-harm can provide a subjective sense of control. This is especially true of those who may be experiencing bullying at school or domestic abuse. The pain felt from cutting or burning can help to drown out mental chatter and other feelings that are too difficult to bare.
Escape from Numbness – This overlaps with the previous point, but instead, the motivation comes from a place of wanting a return to feeling. It is most common in those who have suffered severe trauma. Trauma so bad, the person dissociates themselves from it through depersonalisation disorder. The memories of those events are stored as though they are not their own experiences; they, in effect become lost. This leads to a lack of emotiveness throughout all areas of life, and a profound sense of disconnectedness.
Alternative Expression/Transference – There are several branches to explore here. The first being that the act of self-harm enables the sufferer to transfer emotional pain into a more tolerable, physical form. The second, which can also tie into the first – as well as stand on its own – is it allows for a visual representation of pain. It is kinesthetic, allowing feelings that could not be processed or resolved, to be seen clearly through the image of an open wound.
To Punish Oneself – For some who self-injure, the cause can be due to the aftereffects of suffering severe abuse in the past, and the damage it has inflicted on their self-esteem. In the cases where a controlling figure has brought repeated instances of abuse on someone, the voice or personality can linger on in the mind, long after contact has ceased. This can lead to the sufferer judging themselves as the abuser might, leading to feelings of unworthiness and great inner turmoil.
The key to successfully recovering from any cycle of self-abuse begins by becoming aware of your process. As with all emotional responses, there is a root cause and trigger, which, once you have identified, makes charting a new path much easier through the ability to rationalise your actions.
What You Can Do
If the reason for your self-harm is rooted in regaining control, engaging in activities that will provide a sense of empowerment or achievement will be most beneficial. Here are some ideas:
Exercise – Any form of vigorous exercise or solo sport that puts you in control will assist in improving your mental and emotional wellbeing.
Stress Balls – These can be very handy to carry around with you during the day or at work when you might not have time to engage in anything else.
Gaming – The focus required not only serves as a useful distraction, but also allows you to exercise control over a tangible outcome. Mobile puzzle games are great if you don’t own a home console.
Ceremony – Writing down your traumas and then burning the piece of paper can be incredibly liberating. It is symbolic, but can also be extremely therapeutic through the intent you attach to it.
If the reason for your self-harm is caused by numbness, an effective way to combat this is through trying alternative methods to re-connect with the world. Here are some ideas:
Talk to Someone – You don’t even need to talk about your issues; any conversation at all can be beneficial. Having someone you can turn to can be a great help, and prevent from becoming isolated.
Find Something Funny – Either on YouTube, in a magazine or any other medium. Find something amusing, and make yourself laugh. It may feel strange, or inauthentic at first, but keep at it, and it will become easier over time.
Listening to Music – Everyone has a favourite artist. Listen to something that has meaning to you. If nothing appeals to you now, dig out some of your old favourites to encourage feelings of nostalgia.
Cold Shower – This is a much safer way of using sensory stimulation to return to feeling than any of the previously mentioned methods of harm.
If the reason for your self-harm is to express feelings you are uncomfortable with, one of the best ways to release them is through creative pursuits. Here are some ideas:
Writing – No one ever needs to see what you write. It is about expressing your emotions in any way you feel. Express yourself with unflinching honesty, and non-judgment. There is a saying that you aren’t aware of what you know until you commit it to paper. You might surprise yourself.
Art – This could take many forms, painting, sketching, creating collages. Use whatever materials you have at your disposal, and in whatever way appeals to your imagination. Art therapy is nourishment for the soul.
Play an Instrument – If you already play an instrument, the emotiveness it provides can be an incredible outlet. But equally, learning how to play can also bring a measure of focus and balance to your life.
Listen to Music – As mentioned previously, if playing doesn’t appeal to you, listen to something you can relate or identify with. What are your desert island disks?
If the reason for your self-harm is to punish yourself, anything that will promote a sense of self-worth would be useful. The focus is on self-nurture. Here are some ideas:
Affirmations – Using the Prefix ‘I am…’ write some affirmations to repeat daily to begin re-programming your mind with positive thoughts and phrases, e.g. ‘I am worthy.’ ‘I am loved.’ Etc.
Listen to Calming Music – Listening to ambient or meditation music tuned to 432hz can be an effective way of bringing yourself down from a heightened mood and provide grounding.
Take a Bath – Taking a bath with Epsom salts can be very soothing, and can also assist in changing your perception of the bathroom if it is somewhere you have chosen to self-harm in the past.
Aromatherapy – This can be combined with having a bath. Adding a few drops of essential oils can bring a great sense of calm. Lavender, in particular, is a great stress reliever. But there are many others to choose from.
Note: You could quite easily combine all four of the previous suggestions to create an immersive and sanctuary-like experience for yourself when feeling out of balance.
These are just some broad suggestions, not all of them may appeal to you, but equally some of them that don’t apply to your particular circumstances might inspire you. They are tools for you to use however you see fit and aren’t intended to be prescriptive. If you feel like you want to tweak them to your liking, go right ahead. The most important thing is doing what works best for you.
Some Final Words
Self-harming is a vicious cycle, and although it may appear to provide respite from your troubles, the small ‘gains’ are often far outweighed by a whole host of new issues it brings to the surface. At its worst, it promotes isolationism, shame, and guilt, making it seem like what you’re going through will never end. But remember, recovery is a process, not an event. It does take time. So if you relapse on your path to wellness, allow yourself permission to have made that mistake. Focus on what you have done right up until that point, and resolve to make a better choice next time you feel the ‘urge.’
WHO CAN I SPEAK TO FURTHER ABOUT THE ISSUES IN THIS ARTICLE?
For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.