Self Abuse: Stopping the Cycle

Self abuse: It's not about stopping but doing something else.

Posted Feb 26, 2014

Marcy started cutting when she was in the 6th grade. She found that when she felt overwhelmed or particularly when she was angry, the cutting helped her feel better—literally. Her anger would subside, she knew that it would work, it was something she could control. 

She continued using cutting on and off through high school. When her parents divorced, when a best friend shunned her, when she broke up with her high school steady. And then she stopped, for years.

But recently it’s started again. A long term relationship suddenly ended, and she's understandably distraught. Once again the pen knife in her desk draw is calling her name.

Self abuse is rampant—1 in 5 females, 1 in 7 males. While cutting or burning are the most commonly thought of forms of self abuse, some forms of hair pulling, food restricting, even binge eating can also be considered to fall into this category. What they have in common is the need for emotional release. What they also have in common is the internalization, the directing emotions on oneself rather than externalizing and directing them towards others.

Unfortunately, cutting and other forms of self abuse are often difficult to break because they work…well. In that emotional moment when Marcy feel angry or overwhelmed or depressed, she is able to do something that she can control. It’s much easier for her to cut than call up her boyfriend and talk about how she feels, or even talk to a friend who she is afraid will somehow blame her and confirm her own inner sense that she is a loser. And the cutting creates endorphins that quickly help her feel better. Little pain, immediate results.

It can quickly become addictive in the same way that drug use, alcohol can become addictive. There are two parts to breaking out the cycle—being able to have another way of coping on board when the urge hits, and then solving the problem. 

In order to break the cycle, here is a a 3-step replacement: 

#1. Journal for 10 minutes. The goal here is to get your thoughts and feelings out on paper. Don’t type, write. Do a stream of consciousness thing. Marcy can imagine her boyfriend sitting across from her and getting things off her chest. Set a timer—you don’t want to go on too long because it will emotionally overwhelm you, possibly making you feel worse. 

#2. Do aerobic exercise for 10 minutes. Jumping jacks, a brisk walk around the block, something that gets your heart rate up without killing you. Why? Because it kicks up endorphins. 

#3. Self care. This is the most important part. Doing something that helps you feel like you are taking care of yourself, that helps you relax, that gets you out of your head. For many it is a hot bath or a long shower. For others it is sitting on a bed with childhood stuffed animal and listening to favorite music or yoga or meditation. What’s important is that it is something you can do on your own without depending on others (calling your best friend may help, but it doesn’t it you can’t reach her). Do this for 20 minutes. 

Write these steps down. Put them someplace where can immediately find them. When the urge is you're not going to remember what to do.

The goal here is replacing the self abuse with something else, keeping you from going on autopilot and having it be long enough to reduce the urge—most urging and craving physiologically last about a half hour. Is it going to feel as good as the cutting? Absolutely not because it is not so quick and easy and immediate. But if try it can work as a substitute, you can begin to rewire your brain and reduce the addictive urge.

 Part B, of course, is having others ways of not just calming down but actually solving problems. This is where Marcy when she is not so upset can write an email to the boyfriend. The goal here is assertiveness. Letting others know what feel, what you need, countering the fear of their reactions, and your own internal self criticism. A tall order and this is where counseling, medication, and information and support on websites can help give you the support and skills to move forward—scary but absolutely doable.

Stop hurting yourself. You deserve better.