This article includes an honest discussion about self-harming behavior. No triggering information is shared, but it is a topic that is highly triggering to some. Caution is advised.
Self-harming behaviors leave lasting scars and often feelings of shame. For those who have never self-harmed, doing so is an enigma they can’t answer. However, it makes perfect sense for those who have self-harmed.
Some people who have suffered complex trauma turn to drastic means to lessen their pain. This next series of articles for November is about some of the facts about self-harming behavior, and hopefully, it will give someone out there a glimpse of what is on the other side of this tremendous barrier to health and life.
Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves to deal with challenging feelings such as painful memories and overwhelming situations. Many manifestations of self-harm exist, and many people have their take on what exactly describes it.
Here are some of the ways people describe why they self-harm.
- To change emotional pain
- To change their physical pain
- To reduce overwhelming feelings or thoughts
- To escape traumatic memories
- To punish themselves for their traumatic experiences
- To reconnect after they feel numb and dissociated
- To express suicidal thoughts and feelings without dying
After self-harming, these folks feel a short-term sense of release, but what they hide from is still there when they associate again.
It is crucial to remember that no matter what your reasoning for self-harm, it does come with risks. Also, once you have started depending on self-harm to handle your emotions, it can take a long time to stop.
Why Do People Harm Themselves?
Difficult experiences from the past or present can often spark self-harming behavior. For some, self-harming is perpetrated on parts of their body that they find are linked to a much earlier trauma, such as being abused in childhood.
Often, cuts and bruising increase the dopamine in the person’s bloodstream. The neurotransmitter dopamine is produced from the pleasure center of your brain, so when you self-harm, you get a dopamine rush; thus the euphoria felt by those who harm themselves.
Many reasons cause self-harming behaviors, including:
- Getting bullied
- Pressures from school and work
- Money worries
- A breakdown of a relationship
- Loss of a job
- Memories of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
- Having low self-esteem
- Challenging feelings such as anxiety, depression, or numbness
The list above is not all-inclusive, as there are as many reasons to self-harm as there are people who do it.
The Shame Caused By the Scars of Self-Harm
Some people self-harm in places that are invisible to others, but others decide to harm themselves on body parts that are open to be seen, such as the arms. Either way, the person who hurts themselves often will panic, be in pain, and be ashamed.
Shame and self-injury might reproduce and amplify each other, turning self-harm into something akin to a cycle of shame and self-injury. Self-harm is often caused by uncomfortable social interactions where the person feels overwhelmed and sometimes afraid. Instead of dissociating, the person chooses to cut or burn themselves.
To further explain, consider the cycle of self-harm being utilized to push away shame while no one else knows of their struggles. Being among others where you feel a high level of discomfort often triggers shame. The shame makes one want to harm themselves and others, and around you go in the cycle of self-harm and shame.
Some physicians believe that people who self-injure are unable to self-soothe or regulate their emotions or suffer from a mental illness (Gunnarson, 2021).
The Emotional Toll of Self-Harm
There are emotional ramifications of harming oneself. While physical effects are apparent, self-harm causes great emotional harm as well. People who harm themselves often feel devastated and tormented by their behavior and emotional ties to self-harm.
One possible reason someone will continue to self-harm is the positive feelings it may bring. These might include any of the following:
- One feels a sense of release because of the release of happy neurotransmitters.
- One feels a sense of control.
- Self-harming behavior offers distractions from overwhelming emotions and circumstances.
- Helps in the expression of complex feelings.
Once a person has begun to self-harm, it can quickly become an addictive process where they become dependent on harming themselves to relieve emotional pressure.
Shame often quickly follows self-harming behavior, leaving the survivor feeling out of control and frightened. One need not feel shame for self-harm because it was all you knew at the time to ease your emotional distress.
Because self-harm is so addictive, defeating it can be challenging, but it can be done.
The Physical Toll of Self-Harm
When someone cuts, burns, or otherwise attempts to harm themselves, they take an enormous risk of infection, tetanus, MRSA, or other problems. Most people who self-harm do not take precautions and are at significant risk of causing themselves greater harm than they intended or even dying.
Taking an overdose or any other form of suicidal behavior is another way your physical self and is the ultimate form of self-harm. Having lived through a suicide attempt in the ’90s, I can tell you firsthand that suicide is not the answer as it is; as the saying goes, “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Perhaps the hardest thing to face is the aftermath of self-harming behavior because sometimes you cannot hide what happened to you. The embarrassment is harsh and takes you down into the depths of hell as your trust in yourself is destroyed.
Things to Do to Help You Not Self-Harm
By now, you might feel hopeless or helpless to stop yourself from hurting yourself. You might have relived the last time you hurt yourself. But you need not feel either as you turned to what you thought was the best method of handling your most brutal emotions.
The first step in ending your patterns of self-harm is to try to understand them so you can comprehend what causes your urges. It is vital to remember that even when you cannot stop yourself from harming your body, you can reflect on what happened, enabling you to take a hard look at your triggers. Knowing your triggers can significantly enhance your ability to stop them next time.
Next, learn to recognize the triggers that cause you to want to hurt yourself. These triggers might be people, anniversary dates, sensations, people, a specific thinking process, or strong emotions.
You can also help yourself by noting what happened before you self-harmed. These notes may include asking yourself if you have any particular thoughts. Also, did a situation, object, or person remind you of a trauma in your past? When you realize your triggers, you can begin learning how to handle them without hurting yourself.
Learn to know the physical sensations that you experience before you self-harm. These sensations may include:
- A racing heart
- Feelings of heaviness
- You feel a disconnection from yourself
- You have a loss of sensation
- Feeling strong emotions such as anger or sadness
- Making unhealthy decisions
- Trying your best to avoid your feelings and emotions
In recognizing your urges, you can take the necessary steps to reduce or stop your self-harming behaviors.
Lastly, another technique to avoid self-harm is to wait five minutes before you do it to give you time to think. This technique can feel challenging, so it is important not to kick yourself because you can’t wait that long. Instead, be loving to yourself, and you will gradually build up time gaps when you think about self-harming.
Ending Our Time Together
I have survived two serious suicides and numerous self-harming incidents. It isn’t easy living in a world that is so uncertain and a little more than just scary. It is only natural that our brains look for a way to ease our emotional turmoil.
Self-harm is a coping mechanism, but it is also dangerous as when you cut or otherwise harm yourself, you are telling yourself that you don’t matter when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
After my suicide attempt in the 1990s, I didn’t trust myself. I was terrified that the urge to harm myself would grow strong again, and I didn’t want to do that. What helped me was being open and honest about my emotions and that I had used other self-harming techniques instead of suicide.
Being honest with my therapist and my loved ones gave me integrity and a strong sense that I was in control of my life. Psychotherapy was the answer, along with some medications that helped with my other diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder.
Everyone is different, so what worked for me may not work for you. However, I hope you will give healing a chance.
I hope this piece has opened the door to your healing; I know it has helped mine.
If you or someone you love is engaging in self-harming behaviors, please call 988, the national suicide prevention hotline. The person who picks up the phone will be a highly trained counselor who can help you discover your next steps.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” — Frank Herbert.
Gunnarsson, N. V. (2021). The self-perpetuating cycle of shame and self-injury. Humanity & Society, 45(3), 313–333.