Self-harming behaviours are common – estimates from the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggest that one in ten young people may self harm at some point in their lives. Self-harm can happen at any age and the figures quoted here are probably an underestimate. It’s important to know for those who do self-harm that you can get better. It doesn’t have to to be a life-long problem. I’ve included a link with information from the Royal College of Psychiatrists about self-harm which may be helpful: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/self-harm.aspx
People self-harm in different ways. Cutting is common (probably the most common behaviour that I see as a GP) but there are other methods individual to the person involved. I think the common denominator in all behaviours of self-harm is the presence of emotional pain. Emotions are part of what makes us human and can feel very powerful and overwhelming at times and we tend to want to move away from pain and get rid of it as quickly as possible. This is very understandable. Sometimes when people are in immense pain, something quick and predictable that affects the experience of that pain may be used. Self-harming behaviours may do this.
When I talk to people who have self-harmed, they may often describe feeling numb and the pain “waking them up” or they may describe feelings of wanting to punish themselves or something similar. Self-harm is a strategy for dealing with pain and is that time understable for the person concerned. It is not a particularly helpful strategy in the long run (I think everyone would agree with this) but at that time it is felt to be the best or only option available. People don’t always think rationally in the presence of strong emotions. When a behaviour seems to work, it’s easier to do it again and so a pattern may be set up.
Tips for helping yourself
Self-harming behaviours often thrive in secrecy and there can be a lot of perceived shame attached to them. It can feel very difficult to ask for help or speak to friends or relatives. Behaviours that thrive in isolation are often improved by connection. Do you have a friend you could talk to? Or perhaps a parent or older adult? Failing this, speaking to a heath care professional, counsellor or teacher is another option. Seeking professional help is important in the long run and your GP can put you in touch with services that can help. I’ve put some links below of services that we refer to. Please ask us for more information.
Can you distract yourself? The urge to harm can feel overwhelming but it can also be tolerated until it passes. I’m not saying it is easy by any means but it gets easier with practice. People tell me that getting outside, moving, brisk walking, exercise and meaningful social connection helps. If you slip up, start again where you are and try again. This is a practice not perfection. Celebrating small victories will help you to feel better about yourself and extending the compassion that you would feel towards a good friend, towards yourself is also helpful.
I’m aware of an app, CalmHarm that has been promoted on social media and within the NHS https://calmharm.co.uk/. I’ve spoken to people who have used it and found it helpful. If it’s your kind of thing, then it’s out there.
Be aware of the effects of social media and also certain social groups. Self-harming behaviours can thrive in groups as a way to cope and if this is going on in a friendship group that you are part of, it can fuel the behaviour. So too can the “perfect lives” of others on social media. Becoming aware of your mood in these situations and patterns will help you to know whether the environment is helpful and allow you take steps to look after yourself.
Finally and most importantly, if you are experiencing thoughts of wanting to end your life then please seek help immediately. This could from your GP (please ask for an urgent appoint or speak to us over the phone), your local A and E department or the Samaritans https://www.samaritans.org/. If there is immediate risk to life, then please phone 999 for the ambulance service.
What people have told me has helped them most when they are feeling desperate is the presence of another person being sitting with them until the urge passes. The most unpleasant, powerful feelings pass eventually and this can be helpful to bear in mind.
If you are that person, it can be helpful to sit with the person for a while and resist the urge to do or “fix”anything. If the person wants to talk about how they are feeling, this is fine. Sometimes people are not aware that they necessarily feel anything, perhaps they feel “stuck” or “numb”. This is also fine. You might make them a cup of tea or perhaps go for a walk with them. There is sometimes a tendency to try and talk someone out of how they feel or rationalise with them. This approach doesn’t work very well when emotions are running high. Once the person is calmer, they may wish to reflect on how they felt and this is fine. Try to avoid any language that implies criticism or blame (even if you feel it doesn’t).
Again, if there is threat to life or you feel that you are unable to cope with the person’s behaviour, seek professional help using the sources above under “Tips for Helping Yourself”
The following are sources of support in Birmingham:
Sources of non-emergency support
For students at the University of Birmingham
Please note: This information is designed for information purposes only and whilst accurate, does not substitute for personalised medical advice. If you are concerned about your own health, then please do contact us for advice.