Self-harm is a way of dealing with deep emotional pain. Hurting myself made me feel better when it was the only way I knew how to cope with feelings like anxiety, sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage. It’s an outward expression of inner pain—pain that often has its roots in early life.
It may start as an impulsive reaction. It may start simply out of curiosity.
I’m 58 and have had bipolar disorder since I was a child, so I have been suffering for about 50 some years now. When I was an infant I was put on anxiety medicine in order to keep food in my nervous stomach. By the time I was a few years old I was aggressively biting my nails. My parents, in an effort to stop me made me wear gloves. So then I began to pull my hair out piece by piece.
Self-harm is most common in adolescence and young adulthood, usually first appearing between the ages of 12 and 24. Self-harm in childhood is relatively rare but the rate has been increasing. I was just a toddler when I started the minor self-harm.
By the time I reached my teens, voices in my head told me about cutting and that it would help. So I took a razor blade and cut myself several times across my arm. It didn't give me that sense of relief, so I stopped and stuck with the finger biting and hair pulling as I matured into a young adult.
Self-harm behaviour can occur at any age, including in the elderly population. The risk of serious injury and suicide is higher in older people who self-harm.
Self-harm includes anything you do to intentionally injure yourself. Eighty percent of self-harm involves cutting the skin with a sharp object. Some of the other ways include:
- hitting yourself or banging your head, punching things
- binge drinking and taking too many drugs
- intentionally picking scabs, interfering with wound healing (dermatillomania)
- hair pulling (trichotillomania)
The relief is short lived, and is quickly followed by other feelings like shame and guilt. The painful truth is that people who self-harm generally do so in secret. Keeping the secret from friends and family members is difficult and lonely.
It causes far more problems than it solves.
- You can hurt yourself badly, even if you don’t mean to. It’s easy to misjudge the depth of a cut or end up with an infected wound.
- If you don’t learn other ways to deal with emotional pain, it puts you at risk for bigger problems down the line, including major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.
- Self-harm can become addictive. It often turns into a compulsive behavior that seems impossible to stop.
If you’re ready to get help for self-harm, the first step is to confide in another person. Ask yourself who in your life makes you feel accepted and supported. It could be a friend, teacher, religious leader, counselor, or relative.
Understanding why you cut or self-harm is a vital first step toward your recovery. What feelings make you want to cut or hurt yourself? Sadness? Anger? Shame? Loneliness? Guilt? Emptiness? For me it is mostly anxiety and stress that causes me to self-harm.
Self-harm is a way of dealing with feelings and difficult situations. So if you’re going to stop, you need to have alternative ways of coping in place so you can respond differently when you start to feel like cutting or hurting yourself. Here are a few suggestions:
- Paint, draw, or scribble, express your feelings in a journal, compose a poem or song
- Write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up
- Pet or cuddle with a dog or cat, call a friend
- Squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh or clay
- Put rubber bands on wrists and snap them instead of cutting or hitting
If you want professional help, seek a counselor, someone that specializes in self-harm. And the patient has to want to do it or it will never happen.
For more information about self-harm, read our article, Self-Harm: There is Hope.