If you practice self injury, or SI, then this is often a way of expressing or releasing a powerful and unbearable emotion. It is a highly dangerous and distressing act that places stress on the body’s immune system, creates a high risk of infection and other problems, and can have social implications that create a lot of problems in day to day life. In some cases self harm may also be a precursor to suicide and it is often addictive and progressive which makes it psychologically dangerous too.
Stopping this behavior, as well as the underlying causes that lead to it, is highly important though it is of course a very difficult step. Here we will look at some strategies to stop self harming and to break the cycle before it escalates.
Addressing the Causes
The first step to take is to address the causes of your self harm and these will usually be emotional. LifeSIGNS uses a flow chart that describes ‘hyperstress’ or ‘dissociation’ as two of the major emotions and feelings leading to self injury. In the case of hyperstress the individual feels like they are under too much pressure, and as thought they can’t cope with the reality around them. It then only takes a trigger to cause them to begin their self harming ritual and this then leaves them feeling a sense of relief and back in control of their situation. The body is something that you can control and so this can make them feel in charge of the situation. At the same time it might also act as a call for help that they hope will inform others of their situation.
In cases of dissociation the person has begun to feel numb and detached from the world as though they are no longer connected to their wider social network. Thus when they self harm it is a sensation that they can feel and it reaffirms that they are real and alive.
In these cases then the important thing to address is the cause of the feelings of stress or dissociation. Dissociation might come about through the use of recreational drugs which can often create feelings of unreality and detachment, or it might come about as a result of extended periods of isolation which can come from certain jobs (such as night shifts or computer based jobs), certain lifestyles, or extreme shyness/agoraphobia. Interestingly these are concepts that are often explored in the media in books films and television, such as in the song ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd, or films like ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Fight Club’. The best ways to address these feelings are of course to make sure you get lots of social contact, and to spend more time outdoors.
Sources of stress of course vary widely and we all deal with many different causes of stress on a daily basis. Try to identify these and to see if there is a way to change them. Maybe even moving job or home, or just taking a holiday.
There are of course other causes however, and they can be a result of various psychoses and faulty thoughts, or as a result of a very low self esteem. Self harm might be seen as a form of ‘self punishment’ in some cases and here the issue that needs to be addressed is of course those feelings of inferiority. In the case of irrational thoughts leading to psychoses then self injurious behavior might be a result of hallucinations or paranoia. One patient described themselves as ‘looking for hydraulic lines’ in their arm when they were self harming. This is also why the use of recreational drugs is often associated with self injury.
In other cases an individual might purely self harm as a call for help and to draw attention to an issue when they see no other solution, or they might do it out of anger and frustration – using their own body as catharsis and sublimation for issues out of their control. Again by addressing these deeper issues the patients can hopefully reduce the need to lash out against themselves in this way. It is highly recommended that you seek help from a therapist who will be able to help you address the issues leading to the self harm, and to then find other ways to deal with the problems.
Making a Change
When you begin addressing the issues behind your self harm and have made the decision to stop the behavior this can be very difficult. It is possible to become addicted to the sensation of pain and especially as a form of self medication for psychological issues. You will have become used to leaning on this method as your crutch for dealing with issues, and at the same time it will have become almost a habit and this can be a difficult cycle to break.
Making changes means more than just promising not to harm yourself anymore then, and there are many other things you can do to help.
This takes a lot of courage and bravery and requires you to swallow your pride, but as soon as you tell at least one person your problem you will have a ‘spotter’ who will be on to you and suspicious of your actions. This will make it much harder to get away and harm yourself and will hopefully at least reduce how often you do it.
Throw Away Your Instruments
Most likely you will use the same implements for self harm and by throwing these away you will make it much more difficult to safely harm yourself. This strategy will also act as something of a metaphor representing a big step that you won’t want to go back against. It makes a physical and emotional statement.
Change Your Routines
One of the best ways to end any habit is to change your surroundings and your routines. This way you will take yourself out of your usual settings and the normal triggers that you’ve come to associate with self harm will no longer be there.
Go on Holiday
Going on holiday has countless benefits – changing your routine and your environment, getting you outside, interacting and doing things, and providing you with a break from your usual stressors. If you can’t go on holiday then you may even want to consider checking into a rehab where they will be aware of your problem and help you to recover in a stress-free environment.
Find Other Releases
In so many cases self harm is a way to release an emotion that you are feeling that has no other outlet, or it is a way to feel something. However there are many other ways to let your emotions out and to reconfirm reality. One of the very best ways is through exercise such as weights training. When you self harm you will release endorphins that create the feeling of release, and by exercising you release the very same hormones. At the same time when you exercise you can create a feeling of pain that is not damaging and that can also remind you that you are alive. It’s additionally a great way to take out stress and emotion – by lifting and throwing heavy weights. Boxing might also help you to release tension and punching a punching bag is great catharsis.
Otherwise art can be a great release of more sedate emotions, and so can music. Just channeling your energies into learning a new skill will always take some of the focus off of self harm. Alternatively you can even try cutting something else, and make art this way, or just squeeze a stress ball. One psychological technique that was popular a few decades ago was called ‘Primal Scream Therapy’ which is what the Tears for Fears song ‘Shout’ was about. Try just yelling into a pillow, or even just having a good cry and be sure not to ‘bottle up’ your emotions. Talking too is a great cure.
Control Thoughts and Emotions
An alternative to finding other forms of catharsis is to learn to calm your thoughts and to relax to put them to one side. To do this you can try using CBT techniques to identify damaging thoughts and then to re-frame them so that they are in a more positive light, or you can try using meditation to relax and calm your thoughts. Even if you can’t change the negative thoughts, you can simply distract yourself from them and calm your heartbeat to a point where you don’t feel you need that ‘release’. Think of it as laying a cool blanket over the problem rather than squeezing it.
Every case of self harm is different, and different individuals will find different strategies more effective. However it is very important to at least make the decision to change your behavior, and to get help from sources such as therapists to help you identify the causes of the problem.