Copyright Colleen Thompson
Many people with eating disorders also engage in the act of self-injury. Just like the eating disorders are used to help the individual cope, the act of injuring oneself is also used to help cope with, block out, and release built up feelings and emotions. Self-injury is probably the most widely misunderstood forms of self harm and there are many myths associated with it, which can make it difficult for people to reach out and ask for help.
Self-injury (self-harm, self-mutilation) can be defined as the attempt to deliberately cause harm to one’s own body and the injury is usually severe enough to cause tissue damage. This is not a conscious attempt at suicide, though some people may see it that way.
It has been reported that many people who self-injure have a history of sexual or physical abuse, but that is not always the case. Some may come from broken homes, alcoholic homes, have emotionally absent parents, etc. There are many factors that could cause someone to self-injure as a way to cope.
There are three types of self-injury. The rarest and most extreme form is Major self-mutilation. This form usually results in permanent disfigurement, i.e. castration or limb amputation. Another form is Stereo typic self-mutilation which usually consists of head banging, eyeball pressing and biting. The third and most common form is Superficial self-mutilation which usually involves cutting, burning, hair-pulling, bone breaking, hitting, interference with wound healing and basically any method used to harm oneself.
Most people who self-injure tend to be perfectionists, are unable to handle intense feelings, are unable to express their emotions verbally, have dislike for themselves and their bodies, and can experience severe mood swings. They may turn to self-injury as a way to express their feelings and emotions, or as a way to punish themselves.
You may be wondering why someone would intentionally harm themselves. Self-injury can help someone relieve intense feelings such as anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, guilt and emotional pain. Many people who cut themselves, do this in an attempt to try and release all the emotions they are feeling internally. Others may feel so numb, that seeing their own blood when they cut themselves, helps them to feel alive because they usually feel so dead inside. Some people find that dealing with physical pain is easier than dealing with emotional pain. Self-injury is also used as a way to punish oneself. If they were abused, they may feel ashamed, guilty and blame themselves for the abuse, which in turn causes them to feel the need to punish themselves by inflicting pain to their bodies. Some people have such hatred for themselves and their bodies that they will carve demeaning names on their bodies as a way to remind themselves of how terrible they are. Whatever form of self-injury is used, the person is usually left with a peaceful and calm feeling afterwards. Since those feelings are only temporary, the person will probably continue to self-injure until they deal with the underlying issues and finds healthier ways to cope.
If you feel the urge to injure yourself, below is a list of suggestions that might help you to overcome that urge:
- Deep breathing.
- Relaxation techniques.
- Call a friend, your therapist or a crisis line.
- Try not be be alone (visit a friend, go shopping, etc.).
- Take a hot bath.
- Listen to music.
- Go for a walk.
- Write in a journal.
- Wear an elastic around wrist and snap it when you have the urge to harm yourself.
- Some people find it helpful to draw red lines on themselves with washable markers instead of cutting themselves.
- Hold ice cubes in your hands — the cold causes pain in your hands, but it is not dangerous or harmful (some people find it relieves the urge to harm themselves for that moment).
- Punching a bed or a pillow (when nothing but a physical outlet for your anger and frustration will work).
- Scratch draw a picture on a thick piece of wood or use a screw driver and stab at the piece of wood (can be another physical way to release your emotions without harming yourself).
- Avoid temptation (i.e. avoiding the area in CVS where the razor blades are kept, etc.)
- Try to find your own creative ways as outlets for emotions.
- Learn to confront others/making your own feelings known instead of keeping them inside.
- Go outside and scream and yell.
- Take up a sport (a form of exercise can help you release tension, etc.) work with paint, clay, play-doo, etc. (the person who suggested this mentioned that they would make a big sculpture and do whatever they wanted to it. They said it was helpful to calm the urge to self-injure, plus it gave them some idea of what might be underlying the pain.)
- Draw a picture of what or who is making you angry.
- Instead of harming yourself, try massaging the area you want to harm with massage oils or creams, reminding yourself that you are special and you deserve to treat yourself and your body with love and respect.
- Go to church or your place of worship.
- Wear a pipe cleaner or something that will fit on the places that you injure. One person did this as a way to remind herself that she could call someone instead of hurting herself and that she had other ways to cope.
- Break the object that you use to self-injure as a way to show that you have control over it.
- Write a letter to the person(s) that have hurt you and express how they made you feel. These letters do not have to be in perfect form and you do not have to please anyone but yourself. You do not have to give these letters to the people, but it is a great way to release the feelings that you are carrying within. After you write the letters, you can decide then what to do with them. Some people find destroying the letters help (i.e. tear them up, throw them in a lake, etc.).
- Do some household chores (i.e. cleaning).
- Do some cooking.
- Try some sewing, crossstitch, etc.
- Recite a poem, prayer or anything else familiar the comforts you multiple times.
- Write down all your positive points and why you do not deserve to be hurt.
- Write in your journal why you want to hurt yourself and if you have hurt yourself, write down what caused it to happen so in the future you can prevent it from happenings — or find out what your triggers were.
- Play some kind of musical instrument. Even if you don’t really know how to play, picking out tunes is a way to concentrate and help get rid of the urge to harm yourself.
It is very difficult for people to admit to someone that they harm themselves because there is usually so much shame and guilt that goes along with it. It’s important to try and remind yourself that there is no shame in what you are doing and that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help. In order to help yourself overcome this, you need to want to stop the behavior and you need to find a therapist that you like and trust to help you deal with the underlying issues causing you to do this to yourself. Sometimes treatment may also involve the use of medications such as Xanax and Klonopin. Hypnosis and relaxation techniques can also be helpful, and in extreme cases, hospitalization might be required for a short period of time. If there are support groups in your area, you may want to think about joining them for extra support.
Many people who self-injure keep it a secret because they feel like they are crazy, insane and evil. They fear if they tell anyone, they might be locked away forever. The truth is, people who intentionally harm themselves are in fact very normal and sane people, who are in a lot of emotional pain. They self-injure as a way to cope, because they were probably never taught how to deal with intense feelings and emotions in healthy ways. Unfortunately, when people hear about this form of self-harm, they do tend to place labels on these people as being psychotic and crazy, which is why so many people do not come forward and ask for help. Until society dispels all the myths surrounding self-injury and start to educate themselves on this subject, sufferers will continue to keep quiet and this form of abuse will continue to be a secret for a long time to come.