How to Stop Self-Harm

Goda Brzozauskaite
  • Apr 28, 2022
  • 8 min read
young hurt woman in black clothes sitting on the floor of abandoned building

Often used as a coping technique to combat emotions more intense than those of the average person, self-harm is a term used to describe the intentional injury of one’s own body. People suffering from an addiction to self-injury typically want to release intense emotional overwhelm.

Self-harm is an addictive and dangerous coping mechanism that can have serious consequences if left untreated. Unfortunately, more often than not, self-mutilation is widely misunderstood, leaving sufferers feeling even more isolated and alone.

Read on to learn more about what causes self-injury, how to stop self-harming or help a loved one in need, and also the self-harm treatments available.

Why People Self-Harm

There are several different types of self-harm, including cutting or burning the skin, punching or hitting oneself, headbanging, or even self-strangulation. There are also many more less common types of self-harm including picking at scabs or pulling out hair.

No matter what form of self-injury you or your loved one might be struggling with, the common ground is that the toxic coping mechanism offers temporary relief, often with long-term consequences.

Self-harm uses physical pain to deal with emotional difficulties, yet the results are short-lived. Self-injury prevents people from working through their issues in more healthy ways and can cause major problems at school, work, and of course, in the home.

For those who have never self-harmed, it can be difficult to understand how pain can offer release.

However, self-injury is used in a variety of different scenarios (pretty much always for lack of a better coping method) including:

  • To feel better from a chemical release: It has been scientifically proven that pain releases pleasurable chemicals in the brain. Being injured causes the body to release opiates, which are the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals. These chemicals are actually very pleasurable and can create a short-lasting high. 
  • To release intense emotions: Without healthy coping strategies, painful emotions can bottle up over time, and like any other addiction, self-harm is used to release tensions that they simply cannot face.
  • To express emotional pain: Self-harming individuals often have difficulty communicating their extreme emotions. Similarly, some people who self-injure are afraid of expressing their feelings due to societal pressures.
  • To escape from emotional pain: Self-harm is often used as an escape from one’s feelings, or a distraction from painful thoughts. For some people, physical pain is preferable to the pain of their feelings.
  • To punish themselves: Although it might not be easy to understand, some people feel so much guilt and shame for perceived wrongdoings or flaws, that they feel the need to punish themselves. Self-injury can seem like the only way to alleviate the self-loathing experience. 
  • To feel in control: Survivors of all types of abuse often report feelings of powerlessness. Self-harm acts as an unhealthy coping technique whereby the sufferer can reclaim control over their emotions and bodies.
  • To feel less numb: After self-harming for a while, many people begin to feel emotionally numb. Self-injury in some situations serves to bring on emotions and remind sufferers that they are alive.

How to Stop Self-Harming?

Step 1: Open Up to Someone You Trust

If you’ve been wondering how to stop self-harming, the first step towards a healthier, happier life is to confide in someone that you trust. This can be difficult due to the taboos surrounding the condition and your natural instinct to hide what you are doing.

However, it can be a massive relief to share your secret, and you need to do it if you want to move forward and leave self-injury behind you. Be sure to choose the person you share with very carefully, based on who makes you feel most accepted when you’re around them.

This could be a relative, a friend, a teacher, a counselor, or a religious leader. The more supportive and encouraging their personality, the better they will be able to help you. It is often easier to talk to someone you look up to (like a teacher, counselor, or religious leader) than someone close to you.

This is because if you choose someone close to open up to they may find it difficult to remain objective. Remember that other people love you and it could be upsetting to them to learn that you are struggling, so it can be helpful to have some kind of a “middleman.”

When you are ready to share your story, be sure to remember:

You can share in any way that works for you. Sometimes sharing in person is way too scary. In this case, you can feel free to write an email, letter, or text. You don’t need to share anything you’re not yet ready to speak about, or even to answer any questions you’re not comfortable with.

Stay focused on your emotions. Rather than going into detail about how you self-harm, it’s a good idea to stay focused on the emotions or scenarios that led up to it. This really helps people to understand your story better.

Think about what you want. Are you hoping for help or advice, or do you just want to let go of the burden of carrying your secret alone? If you know your reasons for sharing, be sure to tell the person you’ve chosen to share with as well.

Give the person time to think. If you choose to tell a loved one what’s going on, be aware that they will be shocked, and understand that shock can lead to fear or anger. Sometimes this can cause unsupportive reactions in the moment.

It’s a good idea to print out (or email) this article to the person you’ve chosen to tell, so that they can understand better. Remember, self-harm isn’t widely understood and most people need to be educated about it so that they don’t panic.

Opening up about self-injury can be highly stressful for everyone involved. It’s important not to lose hope if your scenario feels a bit worse for a short while after you share your secret. It isn’t easy to change unhealthy habits, but it is possible, and support will only make it easier.

Step 2: Identify Your Triggers

Knowing and understanding what drives you to self-harm is an important step on the road to recovery. By figuring out the primary reason that you use self-injury as a coping mechanism, in time you can learn different ways to meet those needs.

Self-harm is often used to deal with intense sadness, anxiety, loneliness, anger, shame, or emptiness. If you find it difficult to pinpoint which of these feelings are behind your urges to self-injure, it’s a good idea to work on developing more emotional awareness.

Emotional awareness describes the ability to know what emotions you are experiencing and why you are feeling them. It helps people understand the connection between their feelings and actions. Although it might seem terrifying to pay more attention to your feelings, it can help you in the long run.

You won’t necessarily become overwhelmed with painful feelings forever. Rather, feelings tend to pass through the mind and body like clouds. On some days, it is overcast, but the sun always comes out again and the clouds ultimately drift away.

Try not to fight against your emotions, or judge yourself for having them in the first place. Obsessing over emotions leads them to persist, but in most other cases feelings fade and are replaced by other emotions.

Step 3: Experiment with New Coping Methods

Self-harm coping skills are generally used for dealing with difficult circumstances and disturbing emotions. If you want to stop self-injury once and for all you need to replace this unhealthy coping method with healthier ones.

A few coping mechanisms you can try instead of self-harming include:

  • Art: Draw, doodle, paint or scribble on paper using red to express your pain
  • Write: Start an expressions journal where you write about everything that makes you upset
  • Create: A song or poem to express your emotions more clearly
  • Listen: To soothing music that helps to shift your mood
  • Draw: A warm or cold bath or shower
  • Cuddle: With a cat, dog, pillow or blanket
  • Massage: Your feet, hands or neck
  • Phone: A friend or relative for a chat (you don’t need to mention self-harm)
  • Suck: An ice cube, or hold it in the palm of your hand
  • Nibble: Something with a strong taste such as chili, grapefruit or peppermint
  • Google: Self-harm support groups, self-help articles, chat rooms or message boards
  • Exercise: Run, jump rope, dance or kick a punching bag/pillow
  • Scream: Into a pillow, cushion or mattress
  • Burn or rip: Pieces of paper – either that you’ve written on or even from a newspaper
  • Play an instrument: Any type of musical instrument can be therapeutic
  • Online therapy: Chat to a counselor daily to help deal with your emotions

Self-Harm Treatment 

The type of treatment, as well as its duration, varies from individual to individual based on factors such as personal circumstances, as well as the severity of the condition. Some people can be treated as outpatients, meaning that they don’t require hospitalization.

Instead, outpatients attend hourly therapy sessions with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or both. More serious cases will require hospitalization or inpatient treatment, which ranges in terms of how long a person is hospitalized, among other things.

At mental health institutions, a person is generally put into a group program in combination with individual therapy sessions. Both in-patient and out-patient treatment involve the development of healthy coping techniques.

Self-harm treatment also aims to resolve underlying stressors, while teaching communication skills and how to regulate emotions. Therapy for self-harm might also involve family therapy alongside medication that is used for conditions like anxiety and depression.

Types of Therapy for Self-Injury

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of talking therapy that involves speaking about your thoughts and emotions one-on-one with a psychologist. Sessions are strictly confidential and your therapist will help you to understand how your feelings drive your desire to self-harm, as well as how it can be managed in healthier ways.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

DBT is similar to CBT and is designed to assist people whose intense emotions negatively impact their health (mentally or physically). DBT focuses on extreme self-acceptance and combats self-loathing which is often a catalyst for self-injury.

Family Therapy

Family therapy can help other family members to understand self-harm better, and to improve relationships within the family all round. Family therapy opens up the lines of communication which makes it easier for other family members to support you while you’re struggling.

Psychodynamic Therapy

Especially effective in the reduction of depression and anxiety that might be linked to self-harm, this form of therapy involves speaking about how past experiences could be affecting the present. By figuring out how certain events from the past are having an impact, it can help you to make positive changes.

Online Therapy

In today’s fast-paced world, not everyone has time to schedule in a weekly or biweekly therapy session. Not only do you have to set aside the time for the therapy itself, but there is traveling time involved too. Fortunately, online therapy offers a solution to this, as well as the added advantage of being completely anonymous.

How to Help Someone Who Harms Themselves?

Due to the fact that self-injury is definitely a taboo topic, a great number of people do not understand why a loved one would self-harm. Here are a few common misperceptions to look out for that can prevent you from helping someone even though you may be trying.

Misperception 1: They just want attention

The fact of the matter is that people who struggle with self-harm most often do it in private. The goal is not to manipulate people or to get attention from others. The truth is that fear and shame can make it super difficult to ask for help, so if someone has spoken out to you, do your best to take them seriously.

Misperception 2: They are insane and dangerous

While most people who self-injure are suffering from mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders, so are billions of others in wider society. Self-harm is a coping technique – and to call a person struggling from this addiction “insane” or “dangerous” is not only incorrect, but unhelpful.

Misperception 3: They want to die

Self-injury is not a suicide attempt, it is an effort to deal with overwhelming pain and remain alive. That being said, there is a risk that someone who self-harms could injure themselves accidentally. It is also worth noting that people who self-harm are at increased risk of suicide, so be kind if you come across one of these struggling souls.

Misperception 4: It’s only serious if the wounds are bad

How bad a person’s wounds are is not an accurate reflection of how much they could be suffering. Never assume that just because a wound is shallow that there is nothing to be concerned about. Remember too that self-harm can worsen over time, so be cautious in your approach to the matter.

Now that you know what not to assume, here are a few tips that can help you to be there for the person you love:

  • Process your own emotions: It can be shocking and confusing to learn about someone’s self-harming coping mechanisms. Take the time to be honest with yourself, no matter how guilty you may feel for your initial reactions.
  • Educate yourself about the issue: One of the best ways to beat any uncomfortable feelings you might have about self-injury is to learn more about it. Reading this article is the first step towards understanding more about why your loved one is self-harming.
  • Refrain from judgment: Do not criticize or make judgmental comments to your loved one. They are already at war with themselves, so comments like this will only make matters worse.
  • Offer your support: Do not make ultimatums, threats, or create punishments as a means to try and control the person who is self-harming. Instead, let them know you are concerned and tell them you are available whenever they might need to talk.
  • Encourage expression: Tell your loved one that they are free to express any of their feelings, even if you aren’t comfortable with them. If they haven’t raised the fact that they self-harm themselves, be sure to bring it up in a loving and supportive way.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, self-injury is a coping mechanism that is frequently misunderstood and categorized as taboo. Both in-patient and out-patient therapy can be used to treat self-harm, but therapy itself is essential.

If you or your loved one are interested in online therapy, you can find out more about our services here. Online counseling, as well as in-person sessions, can help to teach you or your loved one healthier coping mechanisms, and to understand their feelings better.

With the right support, before you know it your cuts and burns will have turned into scars. Don’t wait for things to be too late, get help now at DoMental.

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