For Self-Injury Awareness Day, I asked people to share their experience with self-harm, and what has helped them cope.
TW: This post contains information about self-harm. be mindful of reading this if it will affect you negatively.
I first self-harmed at the age of 14. I have no idea where the thought came from, but I drowning in a sea of suffocating thoughts and reached for something out of pure desperation. After this, I became addicted to the pain. I was self-harming almost every day, in a cycle of heal, harm, heal, harm, heal, harm. I hid it from everyone, wearing baggy clothes and keeping up my bubbly front. It was a dark time. I so strongly believed that I needed to punish myself. That feeling has never really gone away.
I was struggling with the pressures of school, and the grip of anxiety and low-self esteem. I was depressed, but I didn't know how to talk about that at the time, so I just.. lived on autopilot. I was lucky to be dating someone, as this meant that one person did know, and could hold me accountable. He would check in with me regularly, and it gave me a reason to stop. In fact, the shame of the reactions of others was the only thing that helped. Then, I moved to university, and in this new environment, I felt free — free to reinvent myself, to dance and do drugs and have fun. I still self-harmed, but it was only a few times a year. This continued until recently.
Lockdown hit me hard, and I relapsed. Now I don’t have a pushy boyfriend to be scared of, I realise that I never really developed resilient coping strategies. I stopped for him, not myself. I want that to change. I’m writing angrily in a diary. I’m going to pick up a paintbrush again. And go for a run. The urge to self-harm is strongest when I’ve had a drink, so I’m watching my drink when I’m feeling down. I’ve downloaded Calm Harm, an app full of distraction techniques that uses Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).
Most importantly, I am working on accepting myself. Every day I am trying to build a resilient, positive attitude, one that doesn’t chastise me for every perceived failure. Mostly, I am reminding myself that one relapse doesn’t mean I have failed, or that my recovery is ruined. I know I will get there.
Sian Bradley, (the author)
I have been self-harming since I was about 14 (I’m 31) now. It’s pretty much been a constant coping mechanism for me. I have suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) since I was a child and self-harming became my way of overcoming those feelings when they were particularly bad. When my adrenaline is very high or I feel overwhelmed by my emotions (particularly anger), the act of self-harm would be a release and immediately calm me down. In good news, I have now gone 749 days without self-harming!
What helps me resist the urges: I use an app — Quitzilla — which helps me track how long I’ve gone without doing it. When I have the urges, I look to see the progress I’ve made on the app and it makes me want to not break the streak that I’ve earned. I tell my partner that I feel that way and he gives me a very tight, full-body hug. The compression helps bring my adrenaline levels down.
My partner is good at identifying when I might be going to self-harm. I think this is through experience. I will go to the bathroom and close the door. I used to lock the door but he said he would remove the lock if I kept doing that, so we agreed that I wouldn’t lock the door. When I go into the bathroom to self-harm, he comes to the other side of the door very gently, and knocks and asks if I’m okay. Then he will slowly open the door and give me a tight hug. This gentle approach, not making a big deal out of things, really helps me.
I also use the My Safe Zone app — this has a good tool where you follow a pattern with your finger whilst breathing in a specific way. This helps me calm down and also distracts me at the same time.
Georgie, a 31-year-old freelancer from Hertfordshire.
Self-harm was something I started to engage in and then struggle with from the age of around 8 or 9 years old. It continued up until I was around 15. I think the most important thing to remember about self-harm is that there are a hundred different things that can be considered self-harm.
Whilst mental health services often assume that people engage within it as some form of “release” for me that’s not true. I found it to become addictive. Something that I found to really help me, which may sound cliche, was journaling. Using words, scribbles, doodles as an outlet when things got to the point of feeling too much. I would also paint on my body as a temporary distraction. Finding positive recovery communities on Instagram (you have to be careful as it isn’t always positive via social media) also helps me. When I was younger, I created a private account to document my recovery. It works as an outlet.
I used to rip apart thick cardboard boxes whenever I felt desperate to self-harm. I was advised by therapists in an old psychiatric ward I was at to snap a bobble around my wrist instead or to hold ice within my hands and clench my fists, but I found these awfully unhelpful and not at all something I engaged in
It’s not linear, but I have always been a creative person and creating something or taking my urges out in a creative way was for me, the only thing that released and allowed me to actually get to a point where I stopped self-harming. Self-harm still crosses my mind every so often when things become tough, but it isn’t an obstacle within my illnesses anymore. There is a way out and ways of managing.
Lou, a twenty-two-year-old training actor from Salford, Manchester.
I’ve struggled with self-harm on and off since I was in early secondary school, had a big clean period during university, before relapsing again recently. It feels extremely shameful for me. I find it hard to even type out the words.
I had an emotionally abusive partner who almost bullied me into not doing it, but during that time I found distraction was my biggest help. I struggled most with being alone so asking friends to be around me and keep me present was the best thing I could do.
Now, though, I very rarely get the urge to SH unless I’ve had a lot to drink. If I do, however, I tell my partner who is so helpful and so understanding, who will either distract me or help me unmuddle my thoughts
My urges normally come from a place of frustration and not being able to understand how I feel so something that helps me is just writing until I can get some semblance of a cohesive thought out, journaling, and drawing or painting.
When I was in sixth form I had a ‘shit book’ where I would just write ‘shit’ over and over until the thing that was frustrating me could come to the front of my mind and I could get it out on paper.
Anon, a PR in London
I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was in my early teens or slightly before, and that’s occasionally manifested itself in self-harm. I didn’t cut myself on a particularly frequent basis — however, there was a spot on my shoulder where I’d go if I was feeling particularly low. I had the occasional cigarette or spliff when I was at college, but started smoking regularly once I started university. This was in part a form of indirect self-harm — I knew that I was harming my body but I was comfortable with it. I’d resigned myself to believe I wouldn’t make it to old age as a result, and there was a strange comfort in that. When I struggled with the permanence of suicide, I felt like smoking was kind of a long-term, slow suicide or form of self-harm. By the same token, I occasionally used drugs with the same logic in mind. When I got put on fluoxetine in mid-2018, I’d mix it with everything from alcohol to Tramadol to Ketamine to Class As despite the warnings against it.
I haven’t physically harmed myself for a while now. When I get urges — as odd as this sounds — I do quizzes online. They help to ground me and calm me down. I choose a subject or topic I’m pretty confident with, and just work my way through the quiz. I’m a big geography nerd so I will literally just sit on Sporcle naming all the countries in the world or something.
Another tactic I use is to make a cup of tea and tell myself I won’t do anything until I’ve finished it — by then, the urge is generally gone. I’ve also heavily cut down on smoking and other drug use — on the occasions that I do smoke it’s because I enjoy it as a treat, not because I’m consciously trying to kill myself slowly.
What I’ve found most helpful is somebody simply listening, as simple as it sounds. Don’t make a loved one ‘promise’ not to harm themselves again, as this will just make them feel worse — listening is the single best thing someone can do.
Adam England, 21, Shropshire, Freelance Journalist
I started self-harming when I was around 14, when I was probably at the peak of my depression. I was also suffering from OCD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder at the time, so self-harm became a way for me to release built-up tension. I also thought I deserved the pain I was inflicting on myself.
I tried to keep it from my mum but after forgetting about it the following day my High School teacher saw my arm and rang her — which to me was a big breach of my rights. However, I’m glad she did as I started to get more therapy tailored to this. Some of the techniques I was given included using ice or snapping an elastic band against my skin, as neither of these left scars. I was also introduced to mindfulness and meditation as a healthy way to cope with overwhelming anxious thoughts, which ultimately helped me stop self-harming. I haven’t self-harmed since I was 16, and I am 22 now. Thankfully my scars have faded over the years and I am now an advocate for better mental health support, especially for young people. It is still a really taboo subject, and I would like to see more awareness about it.
Anna, student from Leeds
I’ve struggled with self-harm for about 10 years. When I a teenager, I just had these thoughts about doing it. And I could easily distract myself, push those thoughts to the side and kind of rationally think through them. Whereas now, it does feel very compulsive. I get intrusive thoughts about it. In some ways, it feels like a physical urge to want to hurt myself.
The way I deal with urges has changed over the years. These days, I get a build-up of nervous panicky energy. Overwhelming thoughts that I can’t get away from, and a very strong urge to act upon them.
The first thing I do is go on a walk and just get moving. There’s a lot of apps. Calm Harm is a popular one that my doctor recommended to me. Clicking on that app and opening it up keeps me in the mindset of thinking about doing something completely different. I find that something as simple as Solitaire and Sudoku also helps, as they engage your brain. I also listen to the sleep stories on Calm. I do find that calms me down.
Another thing that really helps is drawing the same thing over and over again. Just to keep my hands moving as much as anything. And on that note, I do always like to have something with me to fiddle with. Because I can get these thoughts and feelings 24/7, anytime, anyplace. So this helps me manage the intense stress and uncomfortable feeling that comes with a barrage of intrusive thoughts and urges to hurt yourself.
I’ve been told that I will grow out of self-harm. But I think that misunderstands the issue. It is just as bad having the thoughts and feelings and compulsions to hurt yourself, as actually doing it in some respects, in terms of the mental toll that has on you.
The one thing that someone in my life has done, that has really helped is a friend of mine, if I was feeling particularly anxious about things, would hold my hands and touch my arms in a very gentle way. Someone else giving you that loving touch helps so much for me. It is one of the most calming and settling things that I’ve had when I’m having particularly bad urges.
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