In the realm of mental health, self-harm remains a topic that requires our utmost empathy, understanding, and support. Specifically, cutting, one form of self-harm, has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, affecting many individuals regardless of age. The topic can be difficult to discuss, with loved ones often jumping to conclusions of hospitalization (although needed in some extreme cases, but not all) or unintentionally shaming the individual who is engaging in self-harm, leading to a loss of open communication and care.
As a licensed psychotherapist and someone who understands the complexities of self-harm, I strive to create a judgment-free space where we can openly discuss self-harm, decrease the associated shame, and shed light on why people engage in self-harming behaviors. Together, we will explore safety protocols for harm reduction, coping tools for managing self-harm, and the importance of seeking professional support.
What is Self-Harm and Why Do People Self-Harm?
Self-harm refers to intentional acts of self-inflicted harm, often done as a way to cope with overwhelming emotional pain. Cutting, specifically, involves the use of sharp objects to create cuts or wounds on the body. It is crucial to note that self-harm is not limited to cutting alone, as it can manifest in various forms such as burning, scratching, or hitting oneself. This blog post will focus on self-harm in the form of cutting and how I approach the subject as a licensed psychotherapist. This blog post does not substitute professional support. If you or someone you know self-harms, please reach out to a licensed professional for support.
Self-harm is often used in one of two ways: to decrease emotional overwhelm (i.e. “These emotions are too much and I need to numb out/press pause”) or to increase emotion (i.e. “I just want to feel something because I feel numb”). It can provide a temporary sense of relief or distraction for individuals experiencing emotional distress; however, often afterwards shame about the act increases leading to secretive behavior. It’s important to recognize that self-harm does not necessarily equal suicidal ideation, but instead serves as a maladaptive coping tool to regain a sense of control. The topic should be approached with empathy, recognizing self-harm as a sign of difficulty expressing a need for support and emotional regulation, rather than an attention-seeking behavior.
How Can Individuals Who Self-Harm Prioritize Safety?
As someone who has a deep understanding of self-harm, I recognize that stopping isn’t usually a simple matter. When I work with individuals who engage in cutting, we go in-depth into why it has become a maladaptive coping tool, the emotions behind the act, taking shame out of the behavior in order to increase honest communication, and safety protocols/planning. Stopping isn’t simple because the difficulty regulating and processing emotions is still present. When someone is actively self-harming, we first focus on prioritizing safety. The reality is if an individual is engaging in self-harm, then there is a need to minimize risk. Here are some important safety protocols to keep in mind.
If you are currently self-harming, ensure that any tools used for self-harm are clean and sterile to reduce the risk of infection or further harm. Disinfect wounds and take precautions to promote healing.
Self-Administered First Aid
Familiarize yourself with basic first-aid techniques, such as properly cleaning and dressing wounds. If the harm is severe, you are unsure how to manage it, bleeding does not stop, or there are signs of infection, seek medical attention immediately.
Develop a Safety Plan
Create a personalized plan that outlines alternative coping strategies to engage in when the urge to self-harm arises. This plan may include reaching out to a loved one, distracting yourself with a soothing activity until urges decrease, or expressing your emotions through creative outlets such as journaling, drawing, dancing, or music.
Reach Out for Support
If you are self-harming, it’s important to create a support system. If you are not ready to seek support from family or friends, then consider reaching out to a helpline. In the U.S. you can reach a 24/7 helpline for self-harm by texting CONNECT to 741741.
What Are Coping Tools for Self-Harm?
While seeking professional support is vital, here are some coping tools that can help individuals who engage in self-harm.
Engage in activities that redirect your focus away from self-harm urges. I call this “creating a buffer”. Instead of going from Point A (the urge to self-harm) to Point C (the act of self-harm), create a Point B (i.e. distraction). This can include hobbies, creative outlets, or spending time with supportive friends or loved ones. Although this is not a permanent solution to processing and learning how to regulate emotions, it’s a helpful way of decreasing the frequency of self-harm.
Express Your Emotions
Find healthy ways to express and process your emotions. Journaling, artwork, music, dancing, or talking can provide an outlet for your feelings. Turn on music and sing a song at the top of your lungs. Scribble on a page and let your frustrations out. Jump around and move your body to release the emotions that are stored in your body.
Experiment with different mindfulness techniques until you find what works for you. Utilize grounding techniques, guided imagery, somatic exercises, and other tools to self-regulate and increase self-awareness.
Self-soothe by nourishing your mind, body, and soul. This can include fulfilling your basic needs such as eating a well-rounded meal, drinking water, or getting 8 hours of sleep. You can take a warm bath, listen to music, breathe in essential oils, or cuddle an animal.
How Can Psychotherapy Support a Person Who Self-Harms?
If you are struggling with self-harm, consider seeking support from a psychotherapist who specializes in self-harm and understands the complexities surrounding it. They can provide a safe space for you to explore the underlying emotions that contribute to self-harming behaviors and help you develop healthier coping skills. A non-judgmental approach aims to remove shame from the equation and instead cultivate a deeper understanding of why self-harm has become a coping mechanism. As a licensed psychotherapist, I help many people who self-harm with a compassionate and personal approach. Remember, you are not alone, and with the right support, you can move towards a life of hope, emotional wellness, and self-compassion. You are a resilient human being and you deserve support. If you’d like to book a discovery call to see if we are a good fit, click here.