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The act of self-harm includes behaviors such as cutting, burning, and hitting oneself.
Self-harm is not necessarily limited to physically painful activities, however. Sometimes self-harm can manifest in drinking too much, risky sex, taking unreasonable risks, or abusing drugs.
The core of self-harm is that a person is intentionally causing harm to themselves for whatever reason they might have.
Understanding this behavior is the key to finding healthier ways of dealing with your emotions.
This article will cover reasoning, examples, and a common method of trying to curb self-harm. That being said, self-harm is much more serious than many people think it is. It can be a precursor to suicide attempts, another form of self-harm that you typically don’t want to employ self-help with.
Though we can give you some information, we would implore you to seek help from a trained mental health counselor to get to the bottom of the problem and find a way to address it.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you stop hitting yourself or harming yourself in any other way. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
Why do people self-harm?
Self-harm such as hitting yourself isn’t necessarily something that will fit into a neat box, but there are some common elements. In many cases, a person will self-harm when they experience unmanageable feelings. For example, they may feel overwhelmed or distressed and not know how to handle those emotions healthily.
Sometimes, the person is just trying to exert control because they have been stripped of it. For example, a child being sexually abused will not feel like they have any power to stop their abuse. As a result, they may hit themselves or self-harm to demonstrate some control over their own body. This is one of the reasons that self-harm in children is looked at as a possible indicator of child sexual abuse.
But there are many other reasons why people might harm or hit themselves. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Impulse control issues.
Some people have mental illnesses or brain injuries that dramatically affect how their impulse control works. They may hit themselves because that barrier that most people have that tells you not to harm yourself isn’t there. The person might get so overwhelmed by whatever they’re experiencing that their brain just tells them that self-harm is the solution.
2. Past trauma.
People who have experienced past trauma may engage in self-harm to cope with the emotional turmoil that comes with trauma. These feelings are often overwhelming and difficult to manage without some help from a trained professional.
3. Depression or anxiety.
Depression depresses the way we experience emotions and interpret the world. Anxiety may dramatically amplify emotions that fuel self-harm.
In the deepest reaches of depression exists an extremely dark place where a person can’t feel any emotions. And while to some people, this may even sound like a good thing, it’s not. That’s because humans are inherently emotional creatures. We need to feel to process our emotions, both good and bad.
But a person who is deep enough in that hole may self-harm just so they can feel something…anything…because the physical pain is a reminder that you’re still actually alive.
Likewise, anxiety can fuel self-harm to cope with overwhelming feelings.
4. Chronic mental illness.
Depression and anxiety aren’t always chronic mental illnesses. Sometimes they’re temporary problems created by one’s personal circumstances. Sometimes they are disorders. A variety of mental health disorders can cause a person to harm themselves. That may be PTSD, personality disorders, depression disorders, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse disorders.
5. Overwhelming stress.
Stress management can be difficult at the best of times. Sometimes, a variety of factors will come together so that they create the environment for self-harm.
For example, let’s say you’re a new parent. You bring your bundle of joy home, but they won’t stop crying. Morning, afternoon, evening, 3 o’clock in the morning, just crying and fussing nonstop so that you just can’t get more than a couple of hours of sleep. Not sleeping affects impulse control, mood and emotional regulation, and one’s ability to deal with difficult situations. After just a few weeks, a person may self-harm or hit themselves out of sheer frustration.
Sometimes a person has such a low opinion of themselves that they hit themselves or self-harm as a form of self-punishment. They feel like they deserve to suffer because they aren’t good enough or are bad people.
This behavior is often tied to past abuse and trauma in many cases. For example, a child abuse survivor may have been conditioned by their abuse and their should-be guardian’s words to have low self-worth and self-esteem.
7. The experience of pleasure once the pain passes.
Some people may experience euphoria or relief after self-harming. They get a flood of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals that your body produces to cope with being under attack. It’s not necessarily natural to want to be harmed. That’s usually something that we try to avoid. So when harm comes, our bodies are switched into a state where they can handle the potential threat.
8. As a distraction from troubling thoughts.
Sometimes when a person experiences a traumatic event, they may develop a negative loop in their thoughts. Their thoughts continuously keep going back to the event that happened, replaying it repeatedly as the brain struggles to cope with what they experienced.
For example, a person who rushes to help with a car crash may continue to see the scene in their mind repeatedly. A sexual assault survivor may have regularly recurring thoughts and feelings of their traumatic experience.
They may use self-harm as a way to be distracted from these troubling thoughts.
9. To release anxiety, anger, or tension.
Sometimes, people experience repeated events or difficulties that cause them to build up negative energy in themselves. And by negative energy, we’re not talking about something esoteric or mystical. We’re talking about negative emotions that sit, amplify, and don’t get released.
A good example is a person who doesn’t get angry 99% of the time but inevitably explodes into an irrational rage when something sets them off that last 1% of the time. That could be looked at as a form of self-harm because it damages one’s personal life and relationships even though it’s not physical.
10. As a substitute for language.
Some people have a difficult time converting their emotions to words. Those people may engage in self-harm as an unhealthy way to communicate that they are in pain or distressed. Instead of talking or writing out their feelings, they hit or harm themselves to bring attention to the fact that they are in distress.
Why is hitting myself and self-harm such a problem?
There are some pretty obvious reasons why self-harm isn’t a healthy way to deal with your mental health.
Let’s talk about the obvious first. It’s not healthy to want to hurt yourself or think that you deserve to be hurt. You don’t deserve to be hurt. You don’t deserve to be punished regardless of whatever reason you have sitting in your mind. You do not deserve to suffer the pain and trauma that can come from life. Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. But it is something that you should know.
On the not-so-obvious side, self-harm and hitting yourself can make things much more difficult to unravel and cope with. Some people can actually get addicted to the pain of self-harm. And much like substance abuse, a little doesn’t work forever. You may find that the little bit you engaged in before just doesn’t do the same thing that it used to, so you seek out more, and more, and more. And you engage in more serious, severe acts of self-harm to fulfill that need.
And since the pain and action of self-harm can be addictive itself, it can be a struggle to get and stay clean. So you’ll often hear people in recovery from self-harm say things like, “I’ve been clean of self-harm for 50 days.” That’s because it’s hard to break the cycle of self-harm, just like it’s hard to break the cycle of substance abuse.
Another problem is that self-harming regularly creates the habit of self-harm associated with feeling those negative feelings. So if you punch yourself because you feel angry, you’re going to develop an association in your brain between anger and hitting yourself. So instead of handling your anger healthily, your brain will be in the habit of associating anger with pain. Then you’ll want to hurt yourself.
Breaking habits is hard under normal circumstances. But, breaking a habit like self-harm is a big challenge. Not an impossible challenge, just a big challenge.
How can I stop self-harming?
Again, we encourage you to seek help from a trained, certified mental health professional. Self-harm is often a symptom of a deeper problem. Trying to stop self-harm is a great goal, and you’re making a good choice to curb that behavior. However, you need to address the underlying issue causing you to hit yourself or engage in self-harm if you want to stay clean from self-harm.
It is a good idea to seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be effective in helping you to curb self-harm and address its underlying causes.
The following process is a common way to try to manage and stop self-harm. It is not a replacement for therapy or for the help that mental health professionals can give you. Still, it can help to understand the kind of strategies that people use to manage this harmful behavior.
1. Make a tangible list of reasons not to self-harm.
Take the time to sit down and write out a list of reasons you don’t want to self-harm. Of course, you want to take the time to actually physically write out the list. Then, when you’re struggling, you can pull out the list, read your reasons, and try to remind yourself why you’re trying to stop.
If you talk about this with people, you may hear things like you don’t deserve to be hurt. And while that is true, it doesn’t always resonate with some people. For example, you might be someone who really doesn’t like yourself. You may feel like you deserve to suffer for something you experienced or did in the past that you’re not proud of. You may even hate yourself.
If you feel like you can’t use yourself or your own well-being as a reason, that’s okay. Look at whatever other reasons you can find. Hopefully, with more work and some therapy, you’ll be able to add yourself to that list.
2. Reduce how often you self-harm.
Quitting anything cold turkey is extremely difficult. That doesn’t work for many people, whether it’s substance abuse, hitting yourself, or other forms of self-harm. You may find that you just can’t stick to quitting cold turkey. That can actually be self-sabotaging because it can convince you that you aren’t able to change the negative behavior when you relapse, which just isn’t true.
A better solution is to reduce the number of times you self-harm during the week. First, cut it down maybe 25% of the time. Then when you’re ready, you cut it down again and again until you’re not doing it nearly as often or stop altogether.
This kind of staggered approach has a greater chance of success because you’re giving your brain time to adjust to this new, positive behavior that you want to cultivate.
3. Try less intense methods of self-harm.
Of course, certain kinds of self-harm are more damaging than others. Self-harm, such as cutting or hitting yourself, is pretty severe. One thing you can try is to change to a less intense method of self-harm.
One suggestion is an ice cube. The intensity of the cold of the ice cube can be painful with the added benefit of not doing any real harm to yourself. Some people may wear a rubber band around their wrist to snap when they feel the urge. A cold shower may also provide the kind of discomfort and relief that self-harm would otherwise cause. Some people who cut also find it helpful to draw lines on themselves where they would typically cut with a red pen or marker.
This isn’t a forever solution, and you don’t want to make it into one, but it can help you get through stepping down the impulses. It also benefits from not doing any lasting damage to yourself.
4. Try to remove tools and temptations.
For example, let’s say that you cut to self-harm. Take your implements, get rid of them, or put them someplace that isn’t easy for you to access. Hitting yourself is a bit more of a challenge because you can’t exactly hide your fists, right?
Instead, what you can do is punch pillows on a couch or try to avoid situations that would otherwise cause you to self-harm. Maybe it’s a friend whose toxicity triggers you into a bad mental space. It might be a good idea to create some distance from that person.
You’re in a bad living situation that causes you a lot of stress and anxiety, which translates to the need to self-harm to cope. Of course, it’s not always easy to just up and change your living situation or the circumstances causing you to self-harm. Just do what you can to reduce the temptation and your ability to harm yourself.
5. Protect something you care about.
There’s a self-harm reduction project called the “butterfly project.” Basically, the person will draw a butterfly on their skin where they would normally self-harm. Then, instead of trying to convince themselves that they shouldn’t hurt themselves, they instead focus on not causing harm to their butterfly. This can help trigger the empathy and compassion parts of the brain to prevent self-harm, not because the person doesn’t want to hurt themselves, but because they don’t want to hurt their butterfly.
Now, you may find that idea doesn’t suit you, and that’s okay. Instead of a butterfly, try thinking about something else you wouldn’t want to hurt. Maybe you keep a picture of a loved family member, pet, or maybe your child. You hurting yourself will inevitably hurt them because they don’t want to see you suffer. Carry a picture with you. Put a picture with your implements to remind you of your commitment and desire to curb your self-harm.
6. Employ distractions to change your mentality.
Sometimes, when we have negative emotions, it helps to introduce a distraction. The more you focus on negative feelings and impulses, the easier it is to give into them. You may try replacing your self-harm actions with other actions. Maybe when you feel like self-harming, you can instead go for a run, read a book, partake in a hobby, or watch something funny.
Another distraction that can help is breathing exercises. There is a method called “box breathing” that has been used by people for a long time to calm themselves and their thoughts. It’s often used in meditation. You methodically inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and repeat until your mind stills. You want to focus on your breathing and counting out that four seconds. Here’s a box breathing visual to aid you:
It may sound silly, but give it a try a few times when you’re feeling negative emotions.
These are also helpful tactics for interrupting spiraling thoughts and rumination.
7. Talk to someone.
Self-harm can be a scary subject to people who don’t understand it. You may try to open up to your friends and family about your self-harm and get some negative reactions. Hopefully, with a little time and help, they will be able to better support you and be there for you through these difficult things. It might help to have some joint therapy sessions with a mental health counselor so they can learn about your self-harm and how to support you safely.
It’s never easy to be that vulnerable. Do consider who you’re going to open up to. Be wary of opening up to people who may not be healthy or that might use that information against you. A support group or therapist may be the safest place to open up. Still, you can’t necessarily tap them when you really need them. It will help to have someone in your personal life who can be there for you while you work through it.
Self-harm is a difficult, challenging topic. There is a lot to it that needs to be addressed so you can walk your path of healing and recovery.
The most important part of it is to not give up. There’s a very good chance that you’ll relapse on your journey. We want you to know that’s okay. It happens. It’s part of the process of healing. What’s important is that you don’t tear yourself to pieces over being human and not getting it perfectly right.
Instead, you count your days clean and say, “Hell yeah! I had 30 days clean! This time I’m going to go 31!” And before you know it, you’ll be clocking months and years.
You can do this. You can be better. You can get better. Get yourself in with a mental health counselor if you find yourself lost. They should be able to help you.
Still not sure how to stop hitting or harming yourself? Talking to someone can really help you to face whatever life throws at you. It’s a great way to get your thoughts and your worries out of your head so you can work through them.
Speak to a therapist about it. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to explore why you hit yourself and guide you to a place where you no longer do.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.
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- Self-Punishment: What It Is, Examples, What To Do Instead
- What To Do If You Feel Like You’re A Bad Person
- Why You Are Wrong To Believe You Deserve To Feel Pain
- 11 Symptoms Of A Self-Loathing Mindset (+ How To Overcome It)
- 4 Things To Do When You Don’t Care About Yourself
- 10 Ways To Overcome “I Don’t Matter” Thoughts And Feelings