Self harm is a widely misunderstood issue and one that we feel needs to be discussed more openly in order to help sufferers.
Many of the clients that we treat at the Recover Clinic are sufferers of self harm. Self harm isn’t simply a young person’s issue; it’s something that affects people of all ages and is on the rise.
Self-harm is widely regarded as when someone inflicts physical injury upon themselves but we have a broader sense of what constitutes self-harm. We regard ‘self harm’ as any self-inflicted behaviour that causes harm to a person physically or emotionally. This could include any of the following examples:
- Picking or scratching your skin
- Pinching yourself
- Hitting yourself or banging your head
- Pulling your own hair out
- Under-eating or over-eating
- Binging on alcohol
- Drug abuse
- Engaging in relationships with abusive people
- Sabotaging positive relationships
Self-harm is a way people cope with challenging emotions.
For many this could be a way of expressing internal distress or providing a release for painful emotion. A sufferer does not necessarily have to be suicidal to engage in these behaviours. There are many reasons why people wish to engage in self-harm:
- To relieve guilt
- Gaining a sense of control that might be missing from elsewhere in life
- To manage or control negative feelings – depression, anger, distress, fear, worry, low self-esteem, feeling hopeless
- The pain of the injury can distract from emotional pain
- Part of a Mental Disorder where they have repeated thoughts or are hearing voices telling them to self-harm
- A sense of not deserving love and nurturing
- Difficult relationships/breakdown of a relationship
- Difficulties at home, school, work
- Increase in stress
- Financial worries
Self-harm can be addictive and habit-forming.
There is evidence that neurochemicals called ‘endogenous opioids’ play a role in self harm. These chemicals are released when the body is injured in any way and can cause you to be less sensitive to pain. You may even experience this pain as pleasurable.
What should I do if I self-harm?
- If your self-harm has led to injury, seek medical attention immediately.
- Confide in someone. This is the first step to breaking the cycle. It won’t be easy, but it is a sign of strength and courage. Letting go and sharing this secret can often be a huge relief.
- When telling a friend or loved one, try to avoid focusing on the actual self-harm behaviours and instead put the emphasis on the feelings underlying the situation.
- Make sure you feel comfortable with who you decide to tell. If you wish to tell a professional or family member, perhaps take a friend with you who can provide you with support.
- Identify what triggers you to self harm. Keep a journal of how you were feeling before, during and after you self harmed. Understanding these triggers is a vital step towards recovery.
- Try to distract yourself from the urge to self harm. Different distractions work for different people and they may not necessarily work each time so write down a list of distractions that do generally work and others you can try.
- Try the mindfulness technique of noticing and naming feelings as you become aware of them.
Case studies have shown that whether a person seeks professional help largely depends on the reaction of the person when they first disclose that they self harm. Therefore, it is important to know what to do in this situation.
If a family member/friend tells you they self harm:
- Try not to panic or overreact.
- Try to be non-judgemental.
- Show them concern, understanding and support for their feelings.
- Encourage them to talk about the feelings that led to these behaviours, if not with you, then with a professional.
- Try not to focus on the harm itself, as difficult as this may be.
- Remind them of their positive qualities and things they do well.
- Offer to help them find support and ask them what would help – show them that you are in this with them.
- Ensure you have a support team to help you deal with any feelings that you are facing. Trying to figure out if your family member/friend is in danger and deciding what to do is not easy, so make sure you have someone to turn to if you become overwhelmed.
- Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t notice. The feelings of shame surrounding self harm often force the person to become very secretive. Additionally, you may not have realised that the behaviours they are engaging in are even a form of self harm.
At the Recover Clinic we focus on the feelings behind self-harm.
We do not feel it is helpful to ban all self-harming behaviours before a person has the necessary coping tools to deal with their emotions, whilst keeping them safe at the same time. Therefore we place the emphasis on gradually teaching our clients how to deal with negative emotions and with time, self-harming behaviours are completely replaced with healthy and safe coping mechanisms.
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