mental health · mental wellness · Self-harm

Your words cut deeper than a knife

Self-injury or self-harm, or cutting, is such a complex topic to discuss. It’s confusing if you don’t engage in it but you find out that your friends, or children, or loved ones engage in the act. Is it a suicide attempt? Is it attention seeking? Are they trying to follow some trend from social media? Why would anyone want to harm themselves?

And the simple answer is that self-harm is a way of releasing overwhelming emotion or a way of feeling something in the absence of emotion.

bandaged wrists, pulling sleeves down to hide

What is self-harm?

In moments of deep distress or emotional pain, some people engage in an act of self-injury. The type of act varies, and it can be cutting themselves, scratching at skin, burning skin, preventing an old injury from healing, hitting themselves against walls, pulling hair, getting into fights knowing they’ll get hurt, or any manner of causing harm to themselves. Any act, in fact that causes some sort of physical harm, it can even include the misuse of alcohol and drugs and unsafe sexual behaviour, or overeating and undereating.

Self-injury isn’t in and of itself a mental illness, but it is usually a behaviour resulting from depression, anxiety, or trauma, which would need professional help. And because there is a lot of shame and guilt and embarrassment in the act of self-injury, the person might not be able to open up at all about the behaviour out of fear of judgement or angering or disappointing family and friends, but in fact they may need to so that they can get the help they need.

Why do people self-harm?

One of the most common reasons for engaging in self-injury is deal with difficult emotions like guilt, self-hatred or emptiness. Related to this, people engage in self-harm to express feelings that cannot be put into words or to release pain or tension.

Sometimes, this is an act to feel something, anything, when the person is struggling with emotional numbness, or is feeling derealization (which is a feeling disconnected from the world), or feelings of dissociation (feeling disconnected from themself).

Other reasons are for a person to distract themselves from challenging life circumstances, or to prevent themselves from doing something that is more damaging. It’s also a way for them to feel in control of out-of-control life circumstances. Another reason can be a way for people to punish themselves.

Whatever the reason for a person wanting to harm themselves, we need to validate these feelings, and learn what is the reason for self-injury, and understand what is causing them to engage in this behaviour. Ultimately whether it is to feel control, to communicate emotion, to punish or to feel something, we need to help them feel seen, and understood. It’s important for them to have someone they can turn to because then next time, maybe they won’t need to engage in self-harm to release the pain, maybe they can speak to someone to address what is at the core of the need to hurt themselves, or to get professional help.

There are a number of difficult experiences that can result in a person using self-injury to manage their emotional distress. For example, work or school pressures, bullying, low self-esteem, financial difficulties, abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), bereavement, homophobia or transphobia, relationship difficulties, loss of a job, stress etc.

Myths debunked

Myth: It’s attention-seeking

Fact: While the area of self-injury may be visible to others, the act itself causes a lot of shame and embarrassment, so no it’s not attention-seeking. No one who engages in self-harm actually wants you to notice. That being said, what I have come to realise in my therapeutic journey, is that yes, maybe the person is “seeking attention”, but not in the negative connotated way we understand. When someone engages in self-harm, there is trauma there, or some kind of emotional distress, and maybe they don’t have the words to say I need help, and this act is all they can do to say, please see that I am hurting and in need of help.

Myth: They want to kill themselves

Fact: Usually the injury is too minor to actually cause any mortal harm, and the reason for self-injury is to release emotional pain, or address emotional numbing, or punishment, not a desire for suicide. Although that being said, it is important to note that this act is usually related to trauma, or depression, or anxiety, or other mental illneses, and the person could be experiencing serious emotional hurt that they may be suicidal, but the act of self-injury itself is not necessarily a suicide attempt.

Myth: They are crazy or dangerous

Fact: Not crazy, but yes, most likely suffering with a mental illness like depression or anxiety. Anyone engaging in self-injury is hurting more than anything, and struggling with life, or some kind of difficulty.

Myth: The wounds are not bad therefore it’s not that bad

Fact: Engaging in an act of purposefully hurting yourself is bad enough, whether or not that is a surface wound, or an injury that requires stitches. Most people who engage in self-injury will need to learn a healthier coping mechanism to deal with emotional overwhelm.

wrist with win no scars, and wrist with lose with self-harm scars

What to do if someone I know is self-harming

Deal with your own emotions first – you need to acknowledge your feelings which might include anger or disgust before you address the act of self-harm. There is a lot of guilt and shame surrounding self-harm, and the emotions related to why the person would self-harm, so do not approach them if you are feeling anger or disgust

Learn about the problem – it’s confusing and mysterious. So find out everything you can about self-harm before you speak to them. It will also help you deal with any feelings of discomfort if you have an understanding of self-injury

Don’t judge – try and avoid any type of judgment or criticism. This type of reaction will only make the situation worse, and create more guilt and shame which will start the self-injury cycle all over again.

Offer support, not ultimatums – If you want to help, be available as a person who is willing to listen to the persons’ problems, and who is willing to help them find solutions to their emotional distress. Express concern about what they are doing, but offer to help. And make sure that they know you are available whenever they need to talk. Self-harm can be a lonely and isolated road, and anyone would want to know that they have someone there for them

Encourage communication – Encourage them to express their feelings, that you are offering a safe space for them to share how they are feeling, so that they do not have to use self-injury to release those emotions.

Remember that self-harm is usually part of a larger condition, relating to the emotional distress, and it is a coping mechanism for extreme emotional distress, or feelings of emotional numbness. So, if you know someone who is engaging in self-injury, try and encourage them to seek professional help, and at the very least, offer them a safe space to talk about how the feel.

They need to be seen, and heard, not judged and hated.

Sources:

Nami.org

Mind.org

Helpguide.org

mental health · mental wellness · pandemic

I found hope in a hopeless space

No matter the circumstances, as long as we have hope, we can survive them. And that is the most difficult thing that I have found during 2020, is that I had no plans, no certainty, nothing to look forward to, and all I was left with were feelings of hopelessness.

But coming into 2021, which is feeling a lot like 2020, the sequel, I needed a mind shift. I needed to find hope in hopeless situations. The pandemic is causing us to do some serious soul searching, it’s taking away the things that make us human, like our connections with other humans, our freedom to roam and explore our worlds.

flower growing through crack  in concrete

I have decided that this year, I will try and focus on the silver linings. One thing that the pandemic has given me is the blessing of family time. As a working mom, I very rarely spend a lot of time with my children outside of the weekend, but I was lucky enough to have time with them at home. We were able to do yoga routines, and artwork together, and jump on the trampoline. I have been grateful to be able to watch them grow up and learn, and change as the year wore on.

I have also been granted more time to incorporate more reflective activities into my day. Last year, I started morning pages, which has been a great way to start my day, through journaling. It’s like clearing out my thoughts so that I can focus, and be mindful of the day ahead.

Because of the isolation, and uncertainty of the pandemic, I have suffered quite badly with anxiety and depression, but the silver lining here is that I have more time to practice yoga, and spend more time in meditation, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I was working from the office. And I’ve managed to incorporate these activities into my day so that I do at least 5 minutes of yoga and 5 minutes of meditation every day, and these have aided in me being more mindful and remaining in the present.

Person between barren land, and lush grass

Activities that really help me out when I feel numb and withdrawn from the world are reading and writing. Writing, particularly, because it’s such a big part of who I am, and because I feel so passionately about writing, and because I feel energized once I have spent some time writing. I have had more time during my day because I am not commuting as much, I have been able to carve out time to write more.

Because I do not need to wake up as early to get to gym, to get home in time for the school run to get to work in time, I have more time in the evenings, and have been able to spend more time reading. Admittedly, when my depression is really bad, I struggle with this, but my workaround for this is to either use audiobooks, or alternatively choose books that I am able to get lost in quite easily.

Painting of "hope is the thing with feathers"

This year, I want to spend more time on creative pursuits, like writing, and photography, and also to just be in the moment with my kids so more dance parties, and more playtime. And this year, instead of being so isolated, I want to reach out to my friends, because even when I do not feel like surrounding myself with people, I always feel better afterwards.

No matter what you need to do to find your hope in what may seem like a hopeless situation, I encourage you to do it. it doesn’t have to be big. Some days, all it is is getting out of bed, or cooking a meal. Other days, it’s running 5km, or finishing the book you’re reading.

Let’s refocus this year, and find our hope.

"once you choose hope, anything's possible" Christopher Reeve
mental health

New year, same old me

It is incredibly hard to set goals during a pandemic. How do you make plans and set intentions for an uncertain future? And, therein lies the beauty of setting powerful goals. Because when there is nothing external to yourself to aspire to, or to covet, or for external validation, all there is, is what is within you.

I stopped making New Years Resolutions about ten years ago, because I felt like calling them that set me up for failure. I started focusing on the six areas of my life, and set goals within these areas. For example, health and fitness, spiritual, career, intellectual, social, and so forth. And last year, I took it to the next level, by incorporating all of this into a bullet journal to help me track progress. And then the pandemic hit. And all planners became obsolete.

But, at the end of last year, I still, in hope, bought my usual planners, including a new Bullet Journal for 2021. And I used the concept of the “Level 10 life” to set up my goals for the year. One of the gifts the pandemic has granted me, has been time for reflection. I usually fill my life with busy activities, and plan every moment of my life. I haven’t been able to do that. So I have been able to use my time better, and I realized, that what I actually want is to slow down, and engage, and be mindful, play with my kids, and not focus on the side hustle, and always being excessively productive.

The world is so focused on being busy, and doing all the things. That we forget to stop and appreciate all of the things. Lockdown has gifted us with the time to be able to appreciate the ‘small things’, such as connecting with friends and family.  

So how does that impact on setting goals for a New Year? I started by listing all the areas of my life, from spirituality, to family to career and social life. I then looked at each, and rated them on how much focus I have been able to give them, and after this I could see which areas of my life needed more of my attention. I admit that this sounds quite complicated, but the idea is that you focus on an area of your life that you feel you have neglected, instead of setting hard targets, like “lose 10kg” or “complete marathon”.

Viewing goal setting this way enables us to not be so hard on ourselves, and not have hard targets to be achieving by the end of the year. A goal can be to rest more, which is something I need to do. I need to be more comfortable with doing nothing, while resting and recharging. This way of planning for the year enables us to set more gentle goals for the year, like rest, connection, be kind to yourself, spend time outside, have fun.

I suggest that when you look at what you want to achieve this year, that you consider what it is that you, yourself, are longing for, and focus on that. It doesn’t have to be an external goal like losing weight, running a marathon, because that’s what this pandemic has taught me. That I’ve been too focused on external validation, and what I need to achieve to feel better.

This year, let’s focus on our dreams, and what we need for ourselves, and not reaching some imagined target. This year instead of hustling hard, I’m going to rest hard, and be productive at mindfulness, and slowing down.