I am writing this blog post to collaborate with a fantastic account on instagram and to share my story which I hope will help raise awareness on this misunderstood issue.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.
Some people have described self-harm as a way to:
- express something that is hard to put into words
- turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible
- change emotional pain into physical pain
- reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
- have a sense of being in control
- escape traumatic memories
- have something in life that they can rely on
- punish yourself for your feelings and experiences
- stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated
- create a reason to physically care for themselves
- express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life.
After self-harming you may feel a short-term sense of release, but the cause of your distress is unlikely to have gone away. Self-harm can also bring up very difficult emotions and could make you feel worse. It is only a form of short- term release and the consequences often overlooked.
Even though there are always reasons underneath someone hurting themselves, it is important to know that self-harm does carry risks. Once you have started to depend on self-harm, it can take a long time to stop, like many things you can rely on this method as a form of short- term release but it does not solve the underlying issue.
What forms of self- harm are there? How do people self- harm?
There are lots of different forms of self-harming. Some people use the same one all the time, other people hurt themselves in different ways at different times.
Ways of self-harming can include:
- cutting yourself
- poisoning yourself
- over-eating or under-eating
- biting yourself
- picking or scratching at your skin
- burning your skin
- inserting objects into your body
- hitting yourself or walls
- exercising excessively
- pulling your hair
- getting into fights where you know you will get hurt.
Information above is from Mind, the mental health charity.
So why is self-harm misunderstood?
We need to forget the stereotypes about self-harm so we can open up conversations about the real reasons behind it! We need to open up conversations about self-harm and not let myths and stereotypes shut down opportunities to help, prevent self-harm and raise awareness.
The typical stereotype many people will think of when it comes to self-harm is of a teenage girl who has been cutting herself to try to get attention…this couldn’t be more wrong!
Self-harm can affect any gender, age or culture – and it’s far from straight-forward to understand.
All too often self-harm is dismissed as attention-seeking or as teenagers ‘acting out’ and is often seen more in girls than boys but this may be due to boys being less likely to come forward, in society boys are under immense pressure to be strong and deal with strong emotions on their own and not express their emotion, boys may feel there is added sense of stigma or be embarrassed about it.
Parents, loved ones and many people see self-harm as attention seeking- in a way it is but not in a traditional sense. Self-harm is often a way of coping with difficult feelings, it’s not an indication that the person wants to die, it is a sign that the person self-harming does need help and they may chose to talk to you about it and confide in you but most often it is hidden.
Self-harm is not attention-seeking, but it is a sign that someone is struggling immensely.
Whether we are counsellors, parents, teachers or friends, we have to open conversations up, not close them down because we’re swayed by stereotypes.
We need to understand each person’s individual situation and ask them questions.
Allowing them the opportunity to express themselves, to put words to their pain and tell their own individual true story is the way to make a difference.
We need to get the stereotype out of our heads that self-harming is only present in Emo teenagers and it’s purely done because it is fashionable and attention seeking- it is more of a problem than you think!
Self-harm has been apparent in the media for a considerable amount of time.
See examples below:
Calls have been made for greater prevention measures for children and adolescents who self-harm as research finds they are significantly more likely to take their own lives.
The The observational study followed up on 9,173 people aged between 10 and 18 years old who presented in hospital for non-fatal self-harm. Of this cohort, 55 later died by suicide.
●Many young people who are suicidal or self-harming still find it hard to reach out for help until they hit crisis point.
●Survey of 19,000 14-year-olds found 15% intentionally hurt themselves last year.
●Girls made up nearly three-quarters of all cases, while boys accounted for 27%.
●Researchers say girls tend to internalise problems and often blame themselves.
The study found girls were far more more likely (79 per cent) to report a low sense of their own value, including poor self-image, compared to boys (21 per cent).
More than four in five (78 per cent) of them reported depressive symptoms compared to one in five boys (22 per cent).
The study also found teenagers from low-income families were significantly (48 per cent) more likely to report low life satisfaction than those from the wealthy homes.
Children who are taken to A&E departments after self-harming need long-term support and follow-up by the NHS to reduce the chances of suicide, experts have said.
A 16-year study found the risk of suicide in the first year after presenting to A&E among children was 30 times higher than the expected rate of suicide for the general population of similar-age youngsters in England.
Patients discharged from A&E should be referred for follow-up support from local mental health teams but concerns have been raised about the capacity of existing services with many NHS trusts restricting referrals only to the most severe cases.
My experiences with self-harm.
A few close friends and family only know of my history with self-harm and I have only lately starting being open with it on my Instagram account as I want to help raise awareness on this taboo topic however, it is hard to talk about but here goes.
When I was 15-16 years old, due to childhood trauma I was diagnosed with-
○CPTSD (Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
○Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
○Major Depressive Disorder.
My doctor said due to both my age, undergoing puberty and how I was struggling in high school due to bullying, all these factors caused my mental health conditions to come to the surface and resulted in this diagnosis.
During this time I was really starting to struggle due to these three conditions conflicting with each other, the bullying and struggling to fit in and this is the time that the self-harm started.
Due to my childhood trauma and the bullying added on top my self-worth had really taken a battering.
I felt completely out of place, like I couldn’t relate or fully open up to anybody about my feelings, emotions, how I was struggling, and to be completely honest I was struggling with it myself.
I had no confidence, with my own biological father giving me verbal abuse from a very young age (etc) and making me feel completely worthless, to then go to high school and the bullying (especially from the girls) and not being able to fit in reaffirmed this belief.
I was struggling with so many intense emotions, emotions I didn’t know how to deal with. I felt immense pain, I felt like my whole brain was against me and I didn’t know how to cope.
At this moment in time I was also struggling with remembering my trauma, my thinking had changed. Since I was a child I looked at the abuse through the eyes of a child – as a victim, but as I hit 15-16 years old I started evaluating everything that happened and I started seeing it all as an adult and it made me so angry.
I was suffering from night terrors, flashbacks, and I felt like my head would not shut up. Whenever I was bullied my head, like with the verbal abuse from my father absorbed it like a sponge and there it remained and it got replayed over and over until no self-worth, confidence and positivity was left.
Self-harming for me wasn’t because I felt suicidal at the time it was a way of punishing myself. I was angry for letting everything happen, by self-harming I was taking out my frustration the only way I knew how- to take it out on myself but just in a physical form!
“It was a way to have control over my body because I couldn’t control anything else in my life.”
“I usually fely like I had a black hole in the pit of my stomach, at least if I feel pain it’s better than feeling nothing.”
“I felt relieved and less anxious after I cut. The emotional pain slowly slips away into the physical pain.”
Afterwards it would make me feel calmer and this to me never made sense… why??
Luckily I still had contact with the doctor who diagnosed my mental health conditions as he was a mental health specialist. He was the first person I opened up to and it took many months for me to get to this point of opening up to someone- I wanted to understand why I was doing this. I needed answers.
What he explained to me was….
The self-harm cycle.
Self-harm usually starts as a way to relieve the build-up of pressure from distressing thoughts and feelings. This might give temporary relief from the emotional pain the person is feeling. It’s important to know that this relief is only temporary because the underlying reasons still remain. Soon after, feelings of guilt and shame might follow, which can continue the cycle.
The same part of the brain that handles physical distress also deals with emotions.
When it comes to sensing physical and emotional pain, our brains use the same two areas: the anterior insula, a small patch of neural real estate that’s part of the cerebral cortex behind each ear, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a hook-shaped piece of brain tissue towards the front of the brain. These are the areas in the brain that process pain, regardless of whether we’ve felt the sting of rejection or the sting of a bee.
Pain relievers also act on these two areas, regardless of whether someone is experiencing emotional or physical pain. A 2010 study in Psychological Science revealed that the pain relievers such as Tylenol or paracetamol (acetaminophen) helped to relieve the distress associated with social rejection and also decreased activity in the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. This doesn’t mean that Tylenol is the next Prozac, but it does show just how intertwined emotional and physical pain are in the brain.
People who self-harm0 have “learned that, while the pain peaks with self-injury, it then comes down the other side. The physical pain lessens – as does the emotional pain.”
It’s often difficult for people who don’t self-harm to understand why anyone would. But knowing about this bit of neuroscience might help make self-harm a little less mysterious: whether it’s a good idea to exploit it, the connection—the physical wiring of the brain that ties emotions to physical sensation—is real.
The way my mind works, I am somewhat logical so the scientific explanation helped me so much to understand what was going on- it was only a tip of the iceberg as I had so much more to learn about my mental health, but it was a relief to know why I was doing this and to admit that I needed help!
So how did I turn it around/ stop my self-harming behaviour?
Well it wasn’t easy, it required a lot of hard work but I can sum it up for you.
Step 1) Open up to someone.
Open up to someone who you feel comfortable with, someone who won’t judge you, someone you can confide in and someone most importantly who will listen.
Give the person you confide in time to process this and communicate in whatever way you find easiest.
This by no means isn’t an easy task but the most important one!
You can open up to family, friends or even a doctor or local councillor or mental health specialist.
Opening up is the first stage to getting help and even though it is hard, it is also very empowering and human to admit that you need help.
I opened up to my doctor first as I felt this was easier than telling my family- I knew my family would act emotionally, especially if I could not explain first why I was doing it. Once I felt that I understood the issue I then felt comfortable to open up to my family. It was incredibly hard to get my family to understand but afterwards I felt a sense of relief, I no longer needed to hide that I was struggling.
Step 2) Understand your triggers, understand what is going on inside your head, try and figure out what got you to this point.
After opening up to someone you have a problem you have to identify what are your triggers!
◇What is causing you to feel like this?
◇What gets you to the point that you feel you want to cut/harm yourself?
This step is the one you definitely need help with and it takes some time. You need to reflect on what has been going on to make you feel like this and take into account everything you can. Talk to someone about it, write it down and once you have identified these triggers and what has been going on you can start to approach them.
If you’re having a hard time pinpointing the feelings that trigger your urge to cut/self harm, you may need to work on your emotional awareness.
Emotional awareness means knowing what you are feeling and why. It’s the ability to identify and express what you are feeling from moment to moment and to understand the connection between your feelings and your actions. Feelings are important pieces of information that our bodies give to us, but they do not have to result in actions like cutting or self-harming.
The idea of paying attention to your feelings-rather than numbing them or releasing them through self-harm-may sound frightening to you. You may be afraid that you’ll get overwhelmed or be stuck with the pain. But the truth is that emotions quickly come and go if you let them. If you don’t try to fight, judge, or beat yourself up over the feeling, you’ll find that it soon fades, replaced by another emotion. It’s only when you obsess over the feeling that it persists.
For me I’ve always found it easier to write my feeling rather than talk about them. I started journaling regularly to understand everything that had impacted me day by day and I also tracked my moods daily- doing both this helped to identify my triggers.
I did also learn about ‘Emotional Awareness’ because I wanted to understand how to control my emotions, how to control my reactions and how to stop my brain from taking control of me- I wanted to understand my brain more and work as a team.
Step 3) Find new coping techniques.
If you self-harm to express pain and intense emotions, you could:
- Paint, draw, or scribble on a big piece of paper with red ink or paint
- Start a journal in which to express your feelings
- Compose a poem or song to say what you feel
- Write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up
- Listen to music that expresses what you’re feeling
If you self-harm to calm and soothe yourself, you could:
- Take a bath or hot shower
- Pet or cuddle with a dog or cat
- Wrap yourself in a warm blanket
- Massage your neck, hands, and feet
- Listen to calming music
If you self-harm because you feel disconnected or numb, you could:
- Call a friend (you don’t have to talk about self-harm)
- Take a cold shower
- Hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or leg
- Chew something with a very strong taste, like chili peppers, peppermint, or a grapefruit peel
- Go online to a self-help website, chat room, or message board
If you self-harm to release tension or vent anger, you could:
- Exercise vigorously—run, dance, jump rope, or hit a punching bag
- Punch a cushion or mattress or scream into your pillow
- Squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh or clay
- Rip something up (sheets of paper, a magazine)
- Make some noise (play an instrument, bang on pots and pans)
Substitutes for the cutting sensation
- Use a red marker pen to draw on your skin where you might usually cut.
- Rub ice cubes over your skin where you might usually cut.
- Place rubber bands on your wrists, arms, or legs, and snap them instead of cutting.
When I felt the urge to cut/self-harm what I found helpful was cutting something else; putting a plastic band on my wrist and pulling it back and snapping it against my wrist (this hurt so much I would only do it once or maybe twice and it would distract me enough to stop).
I also found journaling, writing poetry, adult colouring, drawing, playing calming games, spending time in nature or with my pets and family helped. Keeping myself distracted helped but what helped more was having a result from it such as a picture. I am naturally creative so this came easy to me.
Step 4) See a therapist.
For me seeing a therapist was a great help as I had mental health conditions I needed to understand and deal with.
I have had various types of counciling but the most beneficial therapy for me was CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).
CBT is used successfully as a treatment for many psychological problems, including OCD and other anxiety problems such as panic, post-traumatic stress disorder and social phobia. It also figures in the treatment of eating disorders, addictions and psychosis.
CBT is a form of talking therapy, however unlike other talking therapies like counselling, it is much more structured and tailored around the individuals ‘here and now’ problems, and rarely focuses on the patient’s past. CBT is also meant to be a short term therapy lasting weeks and months rather than years.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps the person self-harming to explore and understand alternative ways of thinking and challenge their beliefs through behavioural exercises.
CBT makes use of two evidence-based behaviour techniques, Cognitive Therapy (C) that looks at how we think, and Behaviour Therapy (B) which looks at how this affects what we do. In treatment we consider other ways of thinking (C), and how this would affect the way we behave (B).
It’s based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle, as the image perfectly illustrates.
The principal aim of this therapeutic approach is to enable the person to become their own therapist and to provide them with the knowledge and tools to continue working towards coping with whatever they are struggling with.
I have been to CBT several times and I cannot put into words how useful this has been to me and still continues to be. I started by going to a CBT therapist and then carried it on by using workbooks, apps and techniques acquired online and through others who are in the same boat as me.
Step 5) Go to a support group.
For some this may not be an option but for me this step was completely invaluable.
When suffering with depression, CPTSD etc (as mentioned earlier) it is easy to feel alone and isolated in your suffering.
You feel like you are the only one in the entire world to be suffering like this which isn’t the case.
Going to a support group opened my eyes and stopped my cycle of suffering and self-pity.
For the first few months I didn’t reveal much about myself but by just being around other people who have mental health issues, who were struggling in a similar way to me, from all different backgrounds, ages and with histories of their own gave me a sense of comfort and much needed relief.
Once I felt comfortable i started opening up and I felt accepted and most importantly I wasn’t judged or portrayed in a negative light.
I was not approached with pity, caution or doubt but instead I felt acceptance, love and understanding. What I was struggling with felt normalised. After this I got a range of techniques given to me, I had people to open up to and I learn so much along the way.
The support group I went to was all women which helped immensely and was invaluable to me.
So that is my blog post about self-harming.
I will be posting this on my instagram with a short video: ecoqueenfaye_
If you have any feedback, questions or want to discuss anything with me please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Until next time,
Feel free to share, the more we talk about mental health the more it becomes normalised. 💚💚💚💚