Dr. Maria D. Reyes
Angela sits on her bed with the door to her bedroom closed. Tears stream down her face as she grabs the razor blade on her nightstand. She presses it into the underside of her forearm. Harder and harder she presses, prepared to rake it across her arm.She anticipates the pain as she presses the razor deeper still. Finally, she jerks it quickly across her skin, slicing into soft layers of tissue. She watches the blood trickle and moves the razor blade to an unmarked spot. Over and over again, she presses and cuts.
Angela injures herself because somehow, she thinks it will put an end to the mental and emotional pain she’s feeling. Angela is just one example, but she represents nearly 20 percent of young adults between the ages of 14-24 who engage in self-harm.
The first thing that you should know is that self-injury is a cry for help and individuals often resort to it because they feel it’s the only way out of the pain and distress they’re in. It’s their way of trying to cope or visually express their need for help.
Many people who engage in self-harm do so because it makes them feel in control of something when everything else in their world or environment feels out of control. It also makes some people feel alive or gives them a sense of overcoming emotional numbness. Self-harm emerges out of an individual’s desire to cope with their circumstances, environment, or distress.
Signs of Self-Harm
Self-harm can take many forms and while we’ll talk about types of self-harm in a moment; here are some signs that someone in your life is engaging in self-harm:
- Fresh scratches, cuts, or burns
- Multiple bumps or bruises
- Patches of missing hair or missing eyebrows
- Many scars
- Wearing long sleeves or pants or keeping areas of the body fully covered even when it’s hot
- Having sharp objects on hand or always nearby
- Brushing off injuries as accidents or “no big deal”
- Ongoing feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, or hopelessness
- Depression, anxiety, emotional numbness, or drastic mood swings
- Self-disgust or overwhelming shame
- Withdrawing from once-loved activities or hobbies
- Troubles with friendships or romantic relationships
- Open wounds that never appear to be healing
Self-harm can have several physical and emotional effects that can be as severe as death. Organ damage, loss of limbs, permanent numbness in areas, social isolation, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-image can also be effects of self-harm.
Types of Self-Harm
Both males and females engage in self-harm and the types can vary. Types of self-harm include:
- Punching or hitting yourself or objects
- Throwing your body against hard objects or in front of moving objects
- Preventing wounds from healing
- Puncturing your skin with sharp objects
- Burning or scalding your body
- Cutting yourself
- Severely scratching yourself or picking at your skin
- Pulling hair or eyebrows out
- Swallowing an overdose of pills or poisonous or inappropriate objects
- Driving recklessly on an ongoing basis
- Binge drinking or taking drugs
- Engaging in unsafe sex
Why Self-Harm is Not the Answer Sufferers Think It Is
Those who self-harm often feel temporarily relieved from the internal pain they’re experiencing, but the relief is temporary, and the pain will come back, often with a vengeance.
Self-harm does not stop the problem, create tangible control, or provide the individual with a sustainable tool to eliminate pain and suffering. It’s often followed by immense bouts of guilt and shame. Self-harm can open the door to much bigger problems down the line such as depression, suicide, alcoholism, or drug addiction.
Self-harm can also lead to isolation, which only further solidifies feelings of loneliness. Major physical problems can also occur when individuals harm themselves. Besides losing one’s life, an infection from wounds can set in, organs can be permanently damaged, and the constant physical distress can cause negative changes to your nervous system.
What to Do If Someone You Love is Engaging in Self-Injury
If someone you love is engaging in self-harm, the first thing you should let them know is that you care deeply. Don’t barrage this person with questions or demand they “get professional help right this instant.” Instead, listen intently, ask thoughtful questions as necessary, and become a safe place where the person you care about can confide.
As you build trust, encourage this person to confide in a parent (if a minor) or seek the help of a counselor. Reassure them that they are not damaged or broken, but that it’s always important to get help to get to the root of what’s going on so that the issue isn’t something that snowballs into something larger or becomes an ongoing issue.
How to Stop Self-Harming
Deep down, most people who self-harm do not want to. If you’re causing injury to yourself, here are some ways you can work towards stopping:
Confide in someone
One of the first things you should do if you’re harming yourself is to identify at least one person you can confide in. The sooner you move from a place of isolation and hiding, toward support and honesty, the sooner you won’t have to shoulder this burden alone,
Shame and embarrassment will attempt to keep you hiding, lying, and quiet, but if you have a person you trust in your life, step out in courage and faith that that person will walk with you through this. Having support and someone to go to when you’re feeling down can help you process what you’re feeling and begin making different choices.
What feelings make you want to cut yourself? Sadness, self-disgust, or anger? What happens before you cut yourself? What are you using cutting to alleviate? Make a list of how you’re feeling when you cut and what triggers you.When you do that, you can start to think through different coping strategies that will better serve you and prepare you for when you experience those feelings. If you don’t know how to identify the emotions you’re feeling, working with a professional to develop greater emotional awareness can be a highly beneficial skill that will serve you well.
Focus on Your Feelings
Sometimes, we’re afraid of emotions or we don’t like to feel them, so we ignore them, numb them, or distract them. When you allow yourself to feel an emotion rather than obsessing over it or burying it, it will dissipate, and another emotion will replace it. Emotions will come over you and when honored and felt, they will go. Sometimes those emotions are very difficult to feel, but it’s in the feeling that they fade away.
Swap Out Coping Strategies
If you cope with emotional distress and pain through cutting, it’s time to swap out coping strategies. What other positive strategies could you employ?
Could you go for a run, take a hot bath, call a friend, walk your dog, declutter your closet, clean your room, light a candle, pray, put on worship music, read your Bible, pick up a good book at the library, paint, write, or start volunteering for a nonprofit? What is something that isn’t cutting that you enjoy and often takes your mind off things or makes you feel better?
Seek Professional Guidance and Support
When you’re engaging in self-harm, it’s always a good idea to seek professional guidance and support because a counselor is well-versed in techniques to help you better understand yourself, process your environment and trauma, become highly skilled in emotional awareness, and develop successful coping techniques that work for your unique personality and background.
If you’re engaging in self-injurious behavior, we’d love to help you begin the journey of understanding what’s triggering your self-harm. We want to help you develop healthy coping strategies so you can go on to live a life you love and know how to cope with pain, distress, and trauma. Visit our counselor directory or call our office directly to get in touch with a Christian Counselor for self-harm treatment.
“Wound”, Courtesy of Brian Patrick Tagalog, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Crying Black”, Courtesy of Noah Buscher, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “The Sign You’ve Been Looking For”, Courtesy of Austin Chan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Screen Call”, Courtesy of Dylan Ferreira, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.