It has recently come to my attention that quite a few of my followers are either currently self-harming, are in recovery from self-harm, or have a loved one who self-harms. For this reason, I thought I would share a but of the advice that my psychologist has given me in our sessions. I know therapy is expensive so for those of you who cannot get professional help, I want you to have access to some of the information.
First of all, you need to become aware of when you tend to self-harm. For example, is there a particular time of day that you self-harm? Are there particular activities that cause you to self-harm? Are there certain people that make you want to self-harm when you are around them? Once you have established this, you can come up with techniques for dealing with it.
The techniques that my psychologist has given me are called “distress management” techniques because I tend to self-harm when I am emotionally distraught or when having a panic attack. However, these techniques are helpful no matter when or why you self-harm.
First, (and this is going to sound silly) you can try triggering your Dive Reflex by submerging your face in ice water for up to 30 seconds. This triggers a chemical change in your body which releases hormones that have a calming effect. Similarly, you could try having a warm foot bath (not hot!) with your feet submerged to just above your ankle. This also triggers chemical changes in the body that will calm you down.
Alternatively, you could try 20 minutes of intense exercise such as cardio workouts. It has been proven that exercise reduces stress which can help to get rid of self-harm urges. However, if you are like me and are suffering from an eating disorder, do not engage in this activity. My psychologist has instructed me to avoid this technique as intense exercise in eating disorder sufferers can cause a relapse or worsening of the disorder which will certainly not help in the long or short term.
Third, you could try progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) which involves tensing specific muscles in your body for 8-10 seconds then releasing them. This can help to reduce stress by getting rid of some of the tension in your body which is a physical manifestation of stress. For example, you could clench your hands into fists tightly for 10 seconds then let go and relax. You can do this with any muscle in your body (including your facial muscles) and there are certainly times when this can be useful in public places because certain muscles can be tensed and released quite discretely. This has been helpful for me when I am in class or at work because I have no choice to remain in the situation.
You could also try to distract yourself with activities that you enjoy or by triggering strong sensations (ie. holding ice in your hand, snapping an elastic band on your wrist, etc.). For me, I have had very little success with the elastic band method and the ice cubes; however, activities that I enjoy such as writing, playing guitar, and blogging have been particularly helpful for me.
You could also try self-soothing using your senses. For example, you could light a scented candle with a relaxing aroma that you enjoy in order to soothe yourself with the smell or even watch the little flame flicker in a dark room if you find that relaxing. Alternatively, you could resort to counting things like ceiling tiles, colours in a picture, etc. in order to distract yourself from your urge to self-harm. Music is also a great way to self-soothe but make sure that you are not listening to sad music that will make you feel worse. I tend to fall into this trap, but according to my therapist it is actually better to listen to happy music even if it feels like you are forcing yourself to listen because it will still trigger the release of feel-good hormones which will reduce your urge to self harm.
Lastly, at my last session my therapist had me come up with a list of 5 things I could try before self-harming. The activities could be anything that I enjoyed that could help to distract me from the urge. My list included playing guitar, listening to music, writing in my journal, going for a walk, and calling a friend to talk (not necessarily about the urge to self-harm, just to chat with them). She asked me to try to go through each of these 5 activities before resorting to self-harm. Even if I ended up self-harming anyway, that was okay as long as I at least tried the other things first. According to my therapist, it is normal for these alternatives to not be as effective as cutting or other forms of self-harm in the beginning. This is because self-harm also releases endorphins which make us feel better. However, with time, she assured me that these things would eventually come to be quite effective and could replace the self-injury behaviors.
The important thing to keep in mind here is that these techniques will only work if the person who is self-harming wants to recover. If you or your loved one does not want to get better, then these techniques will not work. I would encourage you to give it a shot because a life without self-harm is so much better than a life of hurting yourself. If I can do it, you can do it! At least give each of these techniques a shot!