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Why People Cut Themselves & The Best Alternatives When You Feel The Need To Self-Harm

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Why People Cut Themselves & The Best Alternatives When You Feel The Need To Self-Harm


There are ways to handle the pain without causing yourself even more.

The topic of self harm, particularly in the form of cutting, has grown increasingly more prominent in recent years.

As Karen Contrerio, author of the book, Bodily Harm, recently told WebMD, “Self-harm typically starts at about age 14. But in recent years we’ve been seeing kids as young as 11 or 12. As more and more kids become aware of it, more kids are trying it … People keep doing it for years and years, and don’t really know how to quit.”

What is self-harm and why do people cut themselves?

According to the Mayo Clinic’s definition, “Nonsuicidal self-injury, often simply called self-injury, is the act of deliberately harming the surface of your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It’s typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.”

RELATED: Why I Made My Self-Injury Scars Visible In My Online Dating Profile

Self harm is not a mental illness in and of itself, but rather a negative coping mechanism most often observed in people with mental health diagnoses such as borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety or post-traumatic distress disorder, and/or those who have experience trauma, neglect or abuse.

“Self-injury usually occurs in private and is done in a controlled or ritualistic manner that often leaves a pattern on the skin. Examples of self-harm include:

  • Cutting (cuts or severe scratches with a sharp object)
  • Scratching
  • Burning (with lit matches, cigarettes or hot, sharp objects like knives)
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Hitting or punching
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Pulling out hair
  • Persistently picking at or interfering with wound healing”

In the moments before someone cuts themselves, the emotion is intense.

It feels like it won’t just go away, and you can’t stand it!

It doesn’t matter what the emotion actually is or what caused it in that moment. It’s an emotional kind of pain that is beyond bearable and outside the window of your tolerance.

The only way you can think of to release that emotion, right in that moment, is by hurting yourself.

That physical pain, you believe, will be more tolerable than this excruciatingly strong emotional pain, so you self-harm. You cut into your skin to release the psychological trauma from your body.

While cutting is only one of the several types of self harm people choose, it is one of the most common.

Along with cutting comes the possibility of developing permanent scars, which serve as a near constant reminder of what happened. And depending on the location of the scar tissue, they may be something you get asked a lot of questions about.

RELATED: 10 Tattoos That Cover Up Cutting Scars And Honor Your Struggle

If you or someone you love is struggling with how to feel better about yourself, there are alternatives to self harm you can turn in moments when the pain of your feelings get too intense.

To stop cutting, start by taking these crucial three steps toward healing and learning healthier coping mechanisms for your entirely understandable pain.

1. Get to know your strong emotions

Strong negative emotions results from broken boundaries, which may be physical or emotional, spoken or unspoken.

When your boundaries are broken, it’s normal to feel things like frustration, anger, and emotional pain. When these emotions grow too strong with no healthy outlet, however, they may push beyond what’s known as your “window of tolerance.”

2. Learn to recognize your window of tolerance

Good Therapy defines the window of tolerance as “a term used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively … When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.”

When your emotions are above your window of tolerance, it means you cannot tolerate them, as they are too strong for you. When your emotions are below your window of tolerance, you may experience emotional numbness, as though you just don’t feel anything at all.

3. Identify the source of your pain

Being able to handle your strongest emotions starts with understanding where they come from.

Stop and ask yourself what was happening just before your emotions became so overwhelming.

  • Was there a conversation you reacted to?
  • Were your feeling invalidated by yourself or by others?
  • Is there something that you could try to prevent whatever it was that happened in the future, or is there something else that’s within your power to change?

Once you’ve taken these three initial steps, you can begin teaching yourself new behaviors you call on as self harm alternatives. Keep these ideas somewhere you can access easily in the very moment an urge to harm yourself strikes.

If you are tempted to injure yourself here is a list of things to do in the moment instead:

  • Breathe deeply through your diaphragm. Sit or stand upright so your body can breathe deeply. Make sure you do not breathe through your lungs as this will continue to activate your strong emotion.
  • Count to 10 and see if the emotion decreases. Continue to doing so until it subsides enough for you to feel comfortable again.
  • Try exercising to decrease your emotion.
  • Try journaling. Keep your journal in a safe place or shred it when you are done.
  • Try something that you find relaxing, such as an adult coloring book, knitting, woodworking, or some other hobby.
  • Listen to classical music without words, or any other music you find relaxing rather than stimulating.

In addition to these in-the-moment alternatives, there are some long-term practices you can begin tapping into regularly in order to keep your emotional state better regulated.

Some of these regular mindfulness practices include:

  • Having a regular exercise program. This could be as simple as going for a daily walk.
  • Practice deep breathing at the same time of day, every day. Eventually, your body will come to a place where it will take its own deep breaths as necessary.
  • Take a moment every day to do something that you find relaxing.
  • Find time each day to remind yourself what you are grateful for.

And if you find yourself in crisis, or confused about how to help someone who is, you can text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. for help from a trained Crisis Counselor.

Above all, look after yourself.

As difficult as it can seem, you can learn to deal with strong emotional reactions without injuring yourself.

RELATED: My Tattoo Literally Saved Me From A Life Of Self-Harm

Audrey Tait is a counselor, dietitian, author and founder of Inspirational Insights Counseling, Inc., who helps people overcome addictions, eating disorders, and create positive affirmations in their lives. Learn more about how to care for and respect your yourself and your emotions by reading her book, Reflective Meditations Trilogy: Understanding My Authentic Self, Believing in Myself, Loving Myself, Plus Understanding My Boundaries.

November 6, 2018 at 07:00AM

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