Self-Harm: Understanding and Overcoming the Struggle

Understanding Self-Harm and the struggles it brings

Trigger Warning: The topic of this article may be triggering for some readers. Caution is advised.

Stories about individuals inflicting harm on themselves may be difficult to hear. But these occurrences are both a cry for help and a reminder that much more must be done to increase self-harm awareness and how people can help themselves and others.

Introduction to Self-Harm

As the term indicates, self-harm is intentionally inflicting harm on yourself. The definitions of self-harm from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) say the same thing. Both organizations are working diligently to raise self-harm awareness and help individuals in overcoming self-harm.

Who Is Most at Risk?

According to mental health experts, women are more likely to inflict self-harm than men. While most self-harming individuals don’t intend to die by suicide, the more they engage in hurting themselves, the higher the risk that they’ll ultimately either attempt or perish by suicide. That is unless they seek and get professional help.

How Self-Harm Is Inflicted

Understanding self-harm requires a basic knowledge of how self-harm is inflicted. Here are some of the ways that people harm themselves:

  • Cutting – Sharp objects exist everywhere in households, at work, and elsewhere. Someone intent on causing harm to themselves may pick up and use a cutting object, such as a knife, scissors, box cutter, razor blade, gardening pruners, shears, or manicure tools.
  • Piercing – Anything sharp that can cut can also pierce. Ice picks, meat thermometers, kabob skewers, broaches, tweezers, and toothpicks can, too.
  • Hair pulling – Some individuals engage in hair-pulling to cause themselves harm deliberately.
  • Burning – Burning is another method used to inflict pain and self-harm.
  • Wound picking – Wound-picking intentionally prevents wounds from healing and causes infection, scarring, and pain. The scars from constantly picking at wounds may be permanent, as with burning and cutting.
  • Intentional self-injuries such as broken bones – Although not common, another way to inflict self-harm is to engage in actions that will or may result in broken bones.

Understanding the Underlying Causes of Self-Harm

Increasing self-harm awareness, while a challenging endeavor, also means identifying and understanding self-harm causes.

Why Do People Harm Themselves?

SAMHSA says that the onset of self-harm occurs during the teenage years or when an individual is in early adulthood. NAMI concurs, saying it can also happen later on in life.

Coming from an unstable home can lead to the development of self-harm tendencies. But not every child from a dysfunctional family decides to hurt themselves.

Those who have gone through neglect or abuse or who have a direct traumatic experience are at higher risk of self-harm. However, not everyone who’s been abused, neglected, or witnessed or experienced trauma will wind up intentionally hurting themselves.

Signs of Self-Harm

The newly opened wound, fresh, bloody cuts, intense discoloration from bruises, and the presence of bite marks on body parts (visible or hidden) could indicate intentional self-harm. They could also result from an accident, violence on the part of another, or actions by an animal or small child.

Other self-harm symptoms and signs include:

  • Frequent remarks about being worthless, feeling helpless, and hopeless
  • Demonstrating unstable and unpredictable behavior and emotions
  • Covering up legs, arms, neck, and other body parts no matter what the weather is outside
  • Repetitive or frequently occurring accidental injuries
  • The presence of many scars and the addition of new scars
  • Having a stash of handy sharp objects

Self-Harm Awareness: How Does Self-Harm Start?

When someone begins intentionally harming themselves, how does it start? Feeling intense frustration, pain, anger, or other overwhelming and confusing emotions may precipitate the need to hurt yourself. For some, the fact that the pain they feel from cutting, burning, or other self-harm methods is a way to get relief from the emotional feelings they can’t understand.

If parents instilled in their children that they must hide their emotions or showed by their words and actions that emotional displays weren’t tolerated, they may have grown up hiding them. In this instance, harming themselves could bring relief.

The endorphins released following the pain of self-harm may feel stimulating. Ironically, the pain lessens the emotional burden and boosts mood. Another reason for inflicting self-harm is to feel something real since physical pain means they can temporarily erase feeling numb.

However, inflicting self-harm doesn’t mean that someone is trying to die by suicide. It indicates intense emotional pain that parents, caregivers, friends, co-workers, and others must pay attention to and take seriously.

Coping Strategies for Managing Self-Harm Urges

Better understanding self-harm and increasing self-harm awareness are necessary whether you or someone you know and care for engages in self-harm. When someone hurts themself, they need help coping with self-harm urges.

Tips for Coping with Self-Harm Urges

Following self-hurt, the person inflicting the pain often feels ashamed and guilty. This ratchets up the negativity that surrounds the self-harm incident, with the result that the person feels even more ashamed and guilty. The only way out of that is to repeat the self-harm cycle. Ritualistic self-harm is dangerous and decreases the quality of life.

What may work for curbing urges to self-harm? Here are some tips:

  • Employ distractions. Self-harm awareness is essential to managing urges to hurt yourself. One way to reduce the likelihood of giving in to those urges is to use distractions. How do you do this? The idea is to keep your mind off the self-harm urge for several minutes. The longer you can delay acting on the urges, the likelier it will fade away.
  • Exercise vigorously. When you exercise, you’re concentrating on the actions you take. There may be a regimen to follow. That requires concentration and specific movements to make. Besides the health benefits of exercise, the activity releases endorphins, which make you feel good naturally. When you feel better about yourself, you’re less likely to self-harm.
  • Immerse yourself in music. Many find that music calms their emotions and dampens their urges to engage in hurtful self-behavior. Again, the idea is to employ delaying tactics. So, while you’re enjoying or immersed in listening to music, you’re not engaged in self-destructive behavior.
  • Engage in guided imagery. When you feel stress, anxiety, and other strong emotions, it’s tough to keep self-harm urges at bay. Guided imagery is a helpful relaxation technique that lowers stress and can be an effective way of coping with self-harm urges.
  • Discuss your feelings with a trusted friend. Quashing your feelings and trying to put on a game face when you feel miserable only makes self-harm urges worse. Find a trusted friend to discuss things with. You may be less likely to hurt yourself.
  • Get outside in nature. There’s so much good in being outdoors. Besides, you’re breathing in fresh air and restoring oxygen to your lungs. There are many opportunities to interact with nature and get a different perspective.
  • Practice yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises. Why do this? Since anxiety, fear, frustration, agitation, guilt, shame, and anger can trigger urges to self-harm, anything you can do to initiate calm can help reduce those urges. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing help to lower heart rate and restore calmness.
  • Try strategic harm minimization techniques. This involves reducing self-harm’s negative effects. It includes learning proper wound care, using substitution methods (such as snapping elastic bands on wrists or submerging hands in cold water), and harm simulation (like drawing marks on the skin with a red pen).
  • Removing self-harm tools from proximity. If instruments and items used to perform self-harm aren’t nearby, it may reduce the opportunity to hurt yourself. The idea here is to employ delaying tactics, so you’re less likely to self-harm.
  • Cutting back on self-harm or minimizing occurrences. If it’s too challenging to quit self-harm habits altogether, at least be safe about what you do. Enlist support while you cut back. Consider getting counseling to overcome this damaging behavior.

Seeking Professional Help

Many people who are engaged in self-harm may think there is no way out of this. They don’t believe they’ll be successful in overcoming self-harm. Here is where seeking help for self-harm is highly recommended.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals are experienced in understanding self-harm. They can help you overcome the struggle and reclaim your life.

Some psychosocial therapies may be useful in addressing self-harm repetition, underlying distress, and emotional dysregulation. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Contact our experts at Restore-Mental Health to learn how our treatments and programs can help you.