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Self-Harm, It's Not Just Cutting

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.

To read more from Teresa, see the rest of her posts for IBPF here or visit her personal blog.

For more information about self-harm, read our article, Self-Harm: There is Hope.


Insightful and encouraging

Thank you for the encouragement and glad you found it insightful and encouraging.

Thank you for sharing. This couldn't have come at a better time. I am dealing with this with my son. We just brought him home from the hospital & are trying everything we can to help him. This was a good insight into why this happens.

I am glad that the information was able to help you and your son. Good luck with him. I hope he will be well.

I believe that bipolar disorder,borderline personality disorder and other compulsive behaviors run in both sides of my family. I have a half sister who had trichotillomania to the point that she had to wear a brightly colored, knit ski cap, which at that time was associated with rap music. But by the time she had pulled out all the hair on her head, she decided she would quit the volleyball team, which is sad because she was a tall and powerful player. She was put on Paxil and her hair grew back. Then she stopped the Paxil and she is doing well. My self harm is the overexercise and I have had more surgeries than an NFL or NHL offensive or defensive veteran player. It's just what I learned as a kid. I absolutely loved this blog. So easy to read it just slid off the page.

Thank you Allison for your kind words about my blog post. I wish you well with your self-harm experience.

My late husband committed suicide. My boys were 16 and 13 at that time. They both went to counciling and us three would have nightly talks about their dad and how we felt and how our day went.
My youngest son was 15 when he started cutting. He did it for months before I was aware of it. We were leaving for a trip to see my sister and family, so I told him he had to go back to counciling when we returned.
While we were there, he and his cousin made a contract and signed it. His part was to never cut or harm himself in anyway again. From that moment, he never again harmed his self.
He still got counciling when we got back.
I can't even imagine the pain someone is in where relief only comes by harming ones self. If you are a cutter or want to harm yourself, please reach out to someone and get help. You are worth it!

Debbie I am so sorry for your loss. I am happy to see that you can see your children's pain as well as yours. You are a good parent.

Really great post! Very helpful.

Thank you for your comments.

I loved this article, and it has a lot of useful info! I used to hit myself as way to escape deep rooted emotional pain, and it started around age 9 or 10. I haven't done it in years, however I did dive head first into my addiction and that lasted for over a decade. Even now in recovery, I still have to stop what I'm doing and use thought stopping techniques to help me with my emotions and to steer my thoughts towards something that isn't so compulsive, something healthier. Thanks for the article!

Thank you for the kind words. They really hit home with me. I didn't even realize that what I was doing was considered self harm. I am trying the rubber band method to try and stop at least the scab picking at first. Good luck!

I started with the skin picking when I was in kindergarten. I still do it 53. Can't stop. It's worst on my fingertips, but anywhere is fair game. When I was about 12, I cut the first time. I heard other kids were doing it. Unlike you, it calmed me down greatly. I've done other things like burning myself and worse. I stopped everything except the skin picking when I was in my 30s. My 17 year old daughter has been cutting, not good, but at least it doesn't freak me out. It's good to read someone else being frank about it.

I'm bipolar and OCD and this year started cutting myself to deal with demons. Obviously meds and counseling and family support are important... but honestly I've learned to fight it through finding ways to become your own best friend again. Start wearing clothes that make you feel good and sexy. Go out dancing. Explore new music. Get a killer new hat or wild pair of shoes. Start wearing bow ties if you're a dude or gorgeous headbands if a lady. Become a kick-ass bowler. Get a tattoo that celebrates yourself and identity. Indulge in a new guitar and join a band. You might not see it but you are a damn unique person and worth everything. Just keep your mind open- life does have special things meant just for you to make you whole again. Just look for them. And remind others to not make you feel guilty or ashamed for cutting by freaking out and making ultimatums. That's the worst. Ask for a hug or for them to tell you they know it's hard but they love you and it will get better. I may not know you, but I bet you're special. You should too. Remember life is a roller coaster and has its ups and downs, and you can ride it out to another sunrise. Strive for balance in everything, avoid reckless impulsively but also have fun responsibly. And be kind to not just yourself but people around you.

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