Say ‘self-harm’ to most people and they automatically think of cutting. However, the technical definition of self-harm is any coping strategy which gives temporary respite from difficult emotions. It’s also usually done with either the intention to self-punish, to communicate distress or both.
Amongst other things, self-harm can take the form of overeating, undereating, drinking alcohol to excess or taking other drugs, staying in toxic relationships or friendships or getting into physical altercations. Obviously, these aren’t always an example of self-harm, but they can be.
I like to think about self-harm as a habit which has developed in response to adverse circumstances. We all have crutches we rely on to get us through stress, anxiety and trauma. Some of us are lucky enough to have access to a healthy coping strategy – like a physical, creative, relaxing or community-based activity – whilst others stumble across something which gives them the same feeling of relief but has a less positive impact on their health.
It’s important to acknowledge self-harm has ‘advantages’. Any form of physical pain releases endorphins, which is the body’s way of compensating for the discomfort. It can also be a means of release and expression – A way to articulate internal distress or frustration. People are often reluctant or even scared to look at self-harm in this way because they think to do so is to ‘promote’ it. In fact, the opposite is true – it’s only by understanding the true nature of our enemy that we have any hope of fighting it.
Having a realistic view of self-harm also stops us from focussing too much on the behaviour and instead encourages us to consider the reasons and emotions behind it. Because the truth is, whether you’re self-harming or you’re concerned about someone who is, simply stopping the self-harming behaviour shouldn’t be your primary concern.
Of course, if the behaviour puts you at immediate physical risk it’s shrewd to try and think of ways to mediate that. You might find recommended ‘safe’ ways of inducing physical discomfort, like holding ice cubes in your hands, take the edge off temporarily. Ultimately, however, this is the equivalent of giving Methodone to a heroin addict – the reasons the habit began are still present and the chances of relapse are strong. Equally, there’s a lot of evidence to show-stopping self-harming behaviours without addressing the causes and/or finding an alternative outlet can increase the risk of suicide. All that pent-up emotion has to go somewhere.
I’d recommend asking honestly what benefits self-harming behaviours are bringing you and whether there’s another, less dangerous or even healthy means of achieving the same result. If self-harm is a means of expressing internal distress, for example, it might be that trying to articulate those feelings on to a page, in the form of a journal or a blog is helpful. If the ‘highs’ associated with self-harm are more physical and visceral, you could try a high impact form of exercise like boxing. If it’s a way to communicate what’s going on inside, talking to a trusted person or calling a helpline will help you to feel you have offloaded what is troubling you.
If self-harm has arisen out of feelings of anxiety, I’d recommend trying to separate worries you can control from ones you can’t. We tend to collect our anxieties, like rolling several small balls of bluetak into one gigantic one, until they seem insurmountable. Breaking each concern down and asking whether there is anything which can, realistically, be done is a way to feel more in control.
Finally, remember that recovery is like knitting – sometimes you drop a stitch. If you have a bad day and fall back into your old self-harming ways, it doesn’t mean you’re back to square one. Each attempt at recovery makes us a little stronger and teaches us a little more about what is and isn’t effective. New habits take a while to form so pick yourself up and start again, knowing it’ll get a little easier each time.
By Natasha Devon
Natasha Devon MBE is an author and activist and patron of NO PANIC who visits schools, colleges,, universities and events throughout the world delivering talks and conducting research on mental health. Her first book ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Being Mental’ was published in 2018.
Read more, a survivor’s story: http://Chicken Pie (Recovery from self-harm)
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