This is the final blog of a 4 part series about self injury for the Swindon Mental Health Festival 2019 forming part of a pamphlet to hand out at the event. This blog is regarding possible alternatives to self injury.
This is not an area where I’m going to even remotely pretend to have an definitive answer. If I had the perfect answer I wouldn’t still be fighting with it myself. However, I can provide some useful images that have a lot of suggestions and discuss the things that do help me. Again remember that self injury or harm is individual to each person with different reasons or triggers. Until those are dealt with it might be able to be managed but can be difficult.
Some images are posted at the end of the blog. The first image is pretty good as it divides the
alternatives into things that can be used depending on the reasons you or they are needing to injure.
However, I guess it’s important to point out at this point not everything will work for
every person. For example, I can injure, or have urges to do so, when I am feeling numb or
dissociated. However, I’ve tried the method of holding ice cubes on my skin or in my hands as recommended by this image and a lot of mental health professionals. All this ever achieves is shattered ice cubes; for reasons I cannot explain, but are probably related to frustration and sensory issues of my own, this method sends me into an intense rage and I end up flinging the ice across the room. The elastic band method also doesn’t work for me as it barely touches the sides.
So if something is not working then do not assume it is through lack of trying and move to
something else once it has been tried without success. Methods where I can channel anger such as hitting something with a pillow, slapping the table/hitting something inanimate or ripping things up work, not only for anger and frustration, but can help bring me out of myself if I am dissociated, as I begin to focus on it and feel the sensations. So I won’t focus over much on discussing each of the methods put forward on the photos and simply leave them for you to read them and see if any of them resonate with you, or you think might help someone else; I will explain what what works for me however. –
Red marker pen
This seems to help channel things safely for me. Using a thick red marker pen I will draw red
lines all over my forearms. The pens aren’t too expensive and easy to access at all times. Usually I draw with a heavy slashing motion. The swiping sudden sensation helps, as does the redness which is strangely calming, especially considering that when I practice methods such as colour breathing, red is the colour I’m trying to rid from my body. After I’ve done this I scrub it off in the shower with a rough sponge, this sensation is also helpful. This is great for stress, anger or dissociation.
own a baseball bat and a sandbag filled with play sand that I keep in the shed. The set up cost
less than twenty pound and it required forward planning during a time when I was not actually triggered but when I’m needing to use it, it’s available relatively quickly. I can hit the sandbag with the bat and it will often trigger me to have a shout and a rage.
Afterwards I am usually too exhausted to have any urges left. Obviously this is also a great
method for stress and also for anger. The bonus is learning to direct it outwardly which is a large problem for people who self injure as they often turn their problems inwards. I think it would be difficult for dissociation. The drawback is needing relatively thick walls if you are planning to shout or scream in case you scare the neighbours. For me the other drawback is that it can trigger fibromyalgia or ME issues but some days I will take the trade off.–
Throwing things (safely)
Similarly to the sandbag this is channelling the feeling into physical exertion. I have rolled paper into balls and thrown them at a recycling bin by the wall before now from the other side of the kitchen. As well as the physical effort required releasing the stress and needing to redirect the energy outwards it actually caused me to laugh as I began to try and see how many would go in the bin. On this occasion a friend turned up in the middle and without judgement of what I was doing or why (a great thing for me incidentally) simply joined in, which turned it into a more positive feeling and reduced the anger I was feeling. Again however, with chronic pain it can cause problems but it is whether it is worth it. It goes without saying to be safe so this is again something where forethought is advisable while you are clearheaded to avoid breaking things.
If I am honest my incidence of self injury has been at its lowest when I am following an intense exercise regime. For me it didn’t stop self injuring but did help to apply the brakes for a while, and gave me a 10 month clean break in 2015 when heavy, intense exercise was something I was doing 3 or 4 times a week, the longest time ‘clean’ in probably 7 years. Intense exercise is part of one of the acronyms used in some therapies in the mental health service but I still find if I have the strength of will to draw back long enough, even a lesser exercise level is of some benefit. For me taking my dog for a walk is quite soothing. The days I can make myself take him somewhere quiet on my own and wander in solitude just the two of us is calming. Watching his exuberance about life and being outside is infectious. Sometimes it’s a temporary fix but genuinely does help, even if it seems like a cliche when a mental health professional suggests it. With the help of a good friend I also started to learn to incorporate mindfulness (I know, don’t groan at this mental health buzzword) and immerse myself into the sound of the wind, the heat or cold and what I can see around me. This is great for stress or anger triggers. However, it takes significant strength of will during times of anxiety, depression, numbness or dissociation to leave the house and be willing to look around. The bonus is that walking is free but if you are looking into other exercise it will cost and may not be immediately at hand. If you do have a pet this can be helpful to push towards this.
This was suggested to me by my psychologist and actually does work. The only drawback is it is one of the methods requiring time to set up rather than simply having say, a pen to hand. This does require keeping a bag of ice cubes in the house, or some frozen trays, and a sufficiently sized bowl. The very simple explanation is that you fill a bowl with ice cubes and water; at this point it’s worth wearing a towel around your neck. Then you simply plunge your face into the freezing water and hold it there for as long as possible, or about 30 seconds as a recommendation. It’s important the area around your eyes is submerged, and an alternative to keeping ice in the house which requires no setup, is an ice facemask you can put on making sure the area around your eyes is covered. This method triggers the dive reflex, slowing your heart rate as your temperature comes down. It also comes as a shock, and honestly it DOES hurt. Another alternative is to stand in an ice cold shower; clothes or unclothed is your choice, if the urge to act is so overwhelmingly immediate just jump in. This is really effective for sudden urges where you think the harm will occur relatively soon after the urge. Usually I would use this for a stress or anger trigger but also good for breaking dissociation and numbness by bringing you back into the world. And by the time you have dried off the urge has usually worn off (especially if you are in wet clothes!).
I will sometimes paint or write when triggered. It does cost a moderate amount to get the art
materials, though writing is simply paper and pen, but they do remain easy to access once you
have them. The image below talks about using the urge and turning it on its head to create something beautiful. I wouldn’t call what I do beautiful as I paint very abstract paintings and paint in a very rough, physical manner. It does show the emotion though. Painting can
sometimes leave me sweating with the energy and effort I channel into it. Again this is great for angry or stress induced triggers but I’ve never tried the method in the picture and will be
interested to see if it works for depressive or dissociative triggers. You do not have to be a writer to write. Using a method called ‘hot penning’ simply put the pen on the paper and write down anything that comes into your head for 2 or 3 minutes. It doesn’t matter if it is simply some phrases like ‘Oh god I haven’t got a clue what to write’ simply allow it to flow. Often the results are quite interesting and gives you a chance to direct the urge outwards. What you do after is up to you, rip it, burn it, throw it or use it to write something else.
-The butterfly project
I have included an informative image for this one but am discussing it as I have modified it
slightly. The basic idea is the same. You draw a butterfly on your body and try to keep it alive by not self injuring. I will usually ask my husband or a close friend to draw one on me with their name, as these butterflies are extra special due to the association of love and companionship they denote; I find my strength of will is bolstered by these. The original project then goes on to say that if you self injure you kill the butterfly, or multiple butterflies if you have more than one. However, I find this almost induces a level of guilt within me if I do self injure that is an extra layer on top of the guilt I already feel. If I self injure and I am using my modification the butterfly has to be washed off, but it’s a reminder to me that the butterfly is a symbol of metamorphosis and I have to keep trying over and over again to be able to go through that process. Having a new butterfly drawn on me will reinforce the sense of love and support I have. That’s not to say I treat it glibly if I have to wash the butterfly off, I simply try not to view it in terms of failure. I see it as another chance to keep trying. It’s only if I give up the butterfly is killed. And if the butterfly fades without me self injuring it has been set free to fly away. This always gives me a huge sense of achievement and bolsters me to try again. This one is better if you are harming because of negative feelings about yourself. It’s less effective for angry urges, but I can see it helping with dissociation as it links you to the world.
-Channelling the harm into a less risky method
If all else fails this can help. It does mean the self injury still occurs but is less dangerous. There are obviously quite damaging and risky methods of self injuring which I am not going to discuss in detail but involve wounding the body or damage to the skull. Rather than do this it is worth trying a less risky method. I find a few hard slaps on the arm or leg can help as it still induces a feeling of pain. I have included this last as it still involves the act of self injury but sometimes it’s about minimising risk rather than stopping if that’s simply not going to happen. For that reason sometimes people flick a rubber band on their wrist.
I hope this has provided some ideas that might help someone. I also hope this blog series has been helpful, of interest or, at least, informative.