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Self-Harm Relapse: When Old Habits Return

Self-harm refers to any form of non-suicidal self-injury, and self-harming behaviors can include cutting, burning, hitting, piercing the skin with sharp objects, or head-banging. Some people also include patterns of substance abuse or disordered eating as a form of self-harm.

People self-harm for many different reasons, including coping with negative feelings, managing mental health symptoms, experiencing a physical release, and managing emotional distress. At times, it can feel much better to deal with concrete physical pain than more abstract emotional pain.

If you're struggling with a self-harm relapse, here are some ways to take care of yourself:

Acknowledge What's Happening

Although it can be difficult, it's important to recognize and name when you're struggling. This doesn't mean you need to stop right now, but personal accountability helps mitigate denial, and it can prevent a lapse from turning into a full-blown relapse.

Acknowledgment means labeling that you've self-harmed. If possible, tell a trusted family member, friend, or someone else that you know cares about you, like a therapist or a peer from group therapy.

Consider What Need You're Trying to Satisfy

Self-harm may seem like a problem, but, at the moment, it's a solution. Like anything, it's a coping strategy to help you manage different emotions or needs.

Self-harm provides short-term relief, and it's important to pinpoint which kind of relief you're seeking. Are you hoping to numb out and disconnect from your feelings? Do you want to punish yourself? Is a part of you seeking safety or emotional stabilization of sorts?

Even though you may dislike self-harming, it's important to honor the part of you that has relied on it as a coping mechanism. Every behavior is simply a way people try to survive in the world, and it may have been the only solution you had during a vulnerable time in your life.

Try Different Forms of Physical Release

Harm reduction can also have its place within the self-harm model. Some people benefit from identifying other physical coping skills they can use when they experience the urge to self-harm.

Some healthy coping mechanisms may include:

  • snapping a rubber band against your wrist

  • taking hot or cold showers (or alternating the temperature)

  • engaging in hard physical activity (like an intense run)

  • drawing on the skin instead of cutting it

Reflect on Subtle Self-Harm Urges

Many people relapse into unwanted behaviors when the trigger feels so intense that it creates a tunnel vision effect. At this point, it can seem like the emotional distress is so overwhelming that there's no choice but to act out.

However, it's important to remember that urges to self-harm often build up gradually. For example, you might think the trigger to self-harm was your boyfriend spending time with his friends instead of going to dinner with you. But really, it might be that you had a long day at work, you're tired, you're hungry, and now he texted you saying he would be running late. While you might be frustrated with your boyfriend, the emotional angst built up long before he reached out to you.

Understanding self-harm means understanding the insidious warning signs driving this behavior. What emotions feel intolerable to manage? Which negative thoughts feel scary or vulnerable?

Be Gentle With All-Or-Nothing Thinking

It can be tempting to assume that you have to reset your "start date" if you track abstinence. However, it may be more helpful to consider recovery on a spectrum. Ideally, you're self-harming less and turning to different coping skills when you feel triggered. This road may be bumpy, but you can learn to cope with the ups and downs throughout this journey.

Be Gentle With Past Trauma

Self-harm often goes hand-in-hand with past trauma, and many people first start engaging in this behavior to cope with the tenuous situations of the past.

Working through trauma can take time, but it's often an important part of relapse prevention. If you have unresolved issues, they're likely to continue being activated in the future. Seeking professional help can help address trauma and also strengthen personal growth.

How Resurface Group Can Help Treat Self-Harm and Related Mental Illness

Self-harm rarely exists as its own, distinct symptom. Instead, it often coincides with other mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, PTSD, and more. While the prevailing stereotype focuses on how young people self-harm, the reality is that people of all ages engage in this type of behavior. If you're struggling, you're not alone.

At Resurface Group, we help people manage their negative emotions adaptively. We'll help you implement healthy alternatives for coping with stress, and, with that, we'll strive to help improve your self-esteem and stop self-harming.

We're here for you and your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more.


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