How to Cope with Non-Suicidal Self-Injury
Non-suicidal self-injury, sometimes called “self-harm,” “deliberate self-harm,” or simply “self-injury,” is what happens when someone deliberately hurts themselves to feel emotionally better, but not as a way of ending life altogether. Common forms of self-injury include cutting, burning, deep scratching, or hitting.
Because self-injury is often used as a way to cope with negative emotions, or to help someone feel something if they feel numb, it can be a difficult habit to break. But with the right coping strategies and support network in place, many people do stop self-injuring.
If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of self-injury, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
How to Stop Self-Injury: First Steps Towards Healthier Coping
In general, people who self-injure do not stop until they are ready to stop using it to cope, and until they start to learn and use other ways of coping. If you use self-injury to feel better and are wondering “How do I stop cutting?” you can assess how ready you are to stop by asking yourself, “On a scale from 1 to 10 where 10 is completely ready, how ready am I to stop?” The closer you are to a 10, the more your efforts at stopping will likely be effective.
In addition to gauging your overall readiness to stop, ask yourself questions that will help you figure out more specifically where you are in your readiness to stop, such as:
- How hopeful am I feeling that I can have a life that does not include self-injury?
- How easy is it for me to picture or imagine living my life without self-injury?
- How confident am I feeling that I can stop self-injuring altogether at some point in my life?
- How much time and effort am I willing to put into learning about things that I can do instead of harming myself?
- What is one specific thing I could do now to move towards stopping soon?
Asking yourself these questions and answering them honestly is important, because to make a real change, you will need to:
- Have hope for a future that does not include self-injury. Often the first step towards changing a habit is seeing what your future could look like without it.
- Put time and effort into making change. For example, by working with a mental health professional to identify why you self-injure.
- Identify and practice the skills you need to stop self-injuring. For example, by learning new strategies for coping with negative emotions and practicing those strategies when you feel the urge to self-injure.
- Have confidence that lasting change is possible, and stay focused to make sure the changes you’re making will last.
Tips to Stop Stop Self-Injury Behavior
Once you are ready to make a change, there are many concrete things you can do to stop self-injuring and practice healthier coping strategies:
- Find mental health support. A therapist or counselor trained in self-injury can help you understand why you self-injure and help you learn new ways to cope with negative feelings.
- Lean on your support network. Outside of a trained mental health professional, have friends or family who can hold you accountable to your goal to stop self-injuring.
- Find a community in recovery. Using apps or online support groups can be helpful for some people. Be aware of and avoid communities online where people encourage self-injury.
- Remove tools for self-injury, like lighters, razors, or knives. If you can’t remove them altogether, make them difficult to access by storing them away from your room.
- Avoid or remove triggers wherever possible. A mental health professional can help you figure out what triggers your urge to self-injure. Once you know them, you can make a plan to minimize your stress.
- Practice new coping techniques. You won’t always be able to remove or avoid your triggers, especially if you are triggered by stressors at home, work, or school. So it’s important to have healthier coping techniques for when you do get stressed.
What to Do When You Have Setbacks
Self-injury is often triggered by particular life stressors and turning to self-injury in times of stress can become a habit. For many people accustomed to using it as needed, quitting “cold-turkey” is rarely an effective strategy. Expecting that you should be able to stop self-injuring behavior immediately and completely only increases feelings of guilt and shame—which can worsen the urge to self-harm. Instead, focus on learning coping strategies and increasing self-care habits in the short term that may then make it easier to stop self-injuring over time.
While you are learning new techniques coping and self-care, it’s important to have self-compassion. Having self-compassion can help you make this change because you value yourself—not because you think you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Instead of judging or criticizing yourself for engaging in self-injury, extend the same care and compassion towards yourself as you would toward a loved one if they were going through a difficult time. If you slip up, acknowledge the setback, forgive yourself, and encourage yourself to try again.
How to Help a Friend Who is Self-Injuring
If you have a friend or loved one who is ready to stop self-injuring, there are ways you can support them during their recovery:
- Help them find a therapist or other mental health support.
- Offer to be an accountability partner, if they want one and if you feel equipped to be one for them. If they agree, set up regular times to check in
- Help them develop a self-care plan.
Remember, any support you give needs to be part of a larger conversation with your friend about how you can be helpful to them during their recovery. This is not a battle between you and your friend who is self-injuring—this is about working together to help them stop the behavior that’s harmful to themselves and to your relationship.
It’s also important to remember that as a friend, your support should not replace support from a mental health professional who is trained in helping people overcome issues like self-injury.
What to Do If Your Friend Is Not Ready to Stop Self-Injuring
When a friend or loved one is engaging in self-injury, it can be hard to understand why they can’t just stop. Until they are ready to recognize that their behavior is problematic and feel ready to learn new ways of coping, it can be very difficult to get them to make a change. While you can’t force them to stop their behavior, there are more effective strategies for approaching them with your concern:
- Respectfully ask them questions about their behavior. Ask questions about why they do it, why they don’t feel ready to stop, and how you may be able to help them.
- Calmly share your own feelings of fear or concern and tell them you care about them.
- Do not romanticize self-injury. Teens and young adults who self-injure often believe self-injury is rebellious or strong behavior. It’s important not to reinforce those beliefs.
- Do not agree to keep it a secret. If you are really worried about a friend or if you feel in over your head, it is important to get help. Even if it means not keeping a friend’s confidence, being the best friend you can be means asking for help. While it’s important and understandable to want to protect your friend’s privacy, it’s also important to alert a trusted adult that your friend is harming themselves—even if your friend gets mad at you.
Try to avoid engaging with your friend in these ways:
- Do not debate the morality or “wrongness” of self-injury.
- Do not lash out, shame or guilt your friend. Avoid telling them they are “bad” or “selfish” for self-injuring.
- Do not remove their tools for self-injury without their consent. If someone wants to self-injure and they don’t have access to their usual means, they may find another way to self-injure that could be more dangerous.
How to Help Yourself While Supporting a Friend
Self-injury is a difficult topic that can stir up a lot of negative emotions, especially if you are struggling with your own mental health issues. To be a supportive friend to someone who is self-injuring, you also need to take care of yourself. A good place to start is to set boundaries for what you are willing to talk about or see, and when you are available to talk to your friend about what they’re going through.
Seeking support for your own mental health can help you process your own feelings about your friend’s behavior. If you’re feeling sad, angry, scared, or other difficult emotions, tell a counselor or other trusted adult.
Recovery from self-injury can be a long process both for the person who is engaging in the behavior and for their loved ones. When you feel yourself getting stressed, remember to practice self-care. When you take care of yourself, you are not only giving yourself time to recover from your own stress, you are also showing your friend what healthy coping strategies look like.