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Coping with self-injury

Self-harm is when someone intentionally causes damage or injuries to their body. There are a variety of different self-harm methods individuals choose to use, some less noticeable than others. Watch the video below to listen to a student's story about how they stopped self-harming.

The reasons someone may turn to self-harm are vast and complex. It can stem from childhood trauma to stressors and difficult experiences in adulthood. It can be a multitude of factors that cause someone to use self-harm however, self-harm is often a coping strategy people use when experiencing a period of distress or intense emotion.

If you are having difficulty with self-harm, or know someone who is, please consider getting in touch with the Wellbeing team, you can email at wellbeing@sunderland.ac.uk or call 0191 515 2933. 

Helping Yourself

If you are self-injuring, it is likely that there are underlying issues that are causing you to feel unhappy. You might benefit from some support in considering these issues.

The Wellbeing Service offers confidential, non-judgmental counselling. Talking to someone who is not involved in your life can help you to recognise patterns of behaviour and find your strengths. You can submit a form to our service by clicking here.

As well as providing medical assistance, your doctor (GP) may also be able to refer you to local support services and counselling or therapeutic support. The NHS have a self-help leaflet on Self-Harm you may want to read through. This is entirely accessible with language translation and a variety of accessibility features. 

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Even if you don't feel ready to talk to anybody about underlying issues, there are practical ways in which you might think about helping yourself. Though feelings involved in self-harm are often strong, you do have choices and you can stop. If you do self-injure again, try not to feel guilty about it, as this runs the risk of amplifying the feelings that lie at the root of the behaviour. Try not to be put off from quitting: it can be hard to stop suddenly if this has been your way of coping with difficult emotions.
  • Keep a diary that records when you feel the need to self-injure and the emotions that have led you to that point. You may begin to recognise the build-up towards the need to self-injure, and can consider developing alternative or evasive responses.
  • Try to express your feelings in ways that don't result in self-injury. For example, you may want to consider pummelling a punchbag or hitting a cushion; drawing on yourself with face paints, make-up or a marker pen; or placing an ice-cube on your skin (although ice-cubes from the deep freeze can cause freeze burns, so be careful with this one).
  • Try to find additional, energetic ways to express your feelings, such as shouting, running, digging the garden, vacuum-cleaning, polishing or kneading bread dough.
  • Avoid building your self-esteem on the ability to self-injure - hardening yourself to physical pain is unlikely to harden you to emotional pain. 

Helping Others

If you know someone who is self-injuring it can be tempting to ignore what is happening in the hope that their behaviour will stop. You might feel embarrassed knowing about the behaviour and feel uncertain about what to say. However, focusing only on the behaviour may be missing the point. Self-injuring is an indication of emotional distress, and that distress should be taken seriously.

Someone who is self-injuring may resist help. Considering self-injury to be an essential coping mechanism in distressing circumstances, they may believe that you are trying to prevent them from accessing this form of coping. However, simply being listened to can be of enormous benefit in itself, as can the promise of future meetings to discuss their worries.

However, it is important to remember your own personal and professional limitations. Someone who is self-injuring is more likely to recover if they receive competent support. Encourage someone who is self-injuring to seek professional help. Let them know they can submit a referral to the wellbeing team, contact their GP, get in touch with StudentSpace via phone, email, webchat or text or sign up to Togetherall or Silvercloud and start a module on a wide range of topics that may help them. 

You can also contact Crisis numbers in cases of emergency.

Understanding Self-Injury

Self-injury is estimated to be one of the top five causes of acute medical admissions in the UK. The way that self-injury damages the body is usually intended to be superficial, although sometimes the behaviour may accidentally cause more damage than intended. From a medical perspective, self-injuring is considered undesirable as it may compromise the person's short-term or long-term physical health, and risks placing an additional burden on already-stretched medical resources.

From a lay perspective, self-injuring is thought to be undesirable, not least because it challenges what is popularly held to be 'normal'. The person who self-injures is considered to be abnormal in some way, and may experience increased social isolation. From a counselling perspective, self-injuring is an indication of emotional distress.

A person who self-injures has their own unique set of motivations for doing so. The meanings they ascribe to their behaviour may differ markedly from the meanings given by other people, and may also change through time. Probably with good reason, someone who self-injures is unlikely to believe that their behaviour can be understood well by other people. Research shows that, with appropriate support, self-injury can be overcome successfully. However, some people self-injure as a result of having certain types of learning difficulty, such as autism.

For many people who self-injure, the behaviour is a way of coping with intense emotional pain by inflicting physical pain on their own bodies. Some people report feeling a sense of relief when they cut themselves, or a sense of stillness when they see the blood start to flow. A desire to self-injure can be prompted by pent-up feelings of fear, anger, sadness, disgust, or some feeling about themselves that they find difficult to define. Underlying contributory factors can be, amongst other things, guilt, depression; mourning; low self-esteem; self-hatred; fear of failure or rejection; feelings of powerlessness; past or continuing experience of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. As well as potentially being a source or relief, self-injurious behaviour can be upsetting, causing additional feelings of guilt. Someone may self-injure sporadically or repetitively, depending both on circumstances and past patterns of behaviour.

Self-injury is not directly linked to suicide - for some people it is a way to avoid suicide. Someone who is self-injuring may be doing so to allow themselves to 'feel' something physical, whereas the aim of suicide is usually to stop 'feeling'. However, anyone who is in extreme emotional distress may consider suicide, including someone who self-injures. Self-injury is not a self-indulgent attention-seeking exercise, though if conspicuous it may be a cry for help.

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