How to cope with a self-harm relapse

You thought you had your self-harming under control, but now you've started hurting yourself again and you're not sure why. The Mix looks at how to cope with a self-harm relapse.

A group of young people sit around laughing and talking

Why am I self-harming again?

Self-harming again after not doing it for a while isn’t anything to be ashamed of. You haven’t suddenly become weak, you haven’t lost your will-power, and you haven’t let yourself – or anyone else – down. Self-harm is often used as a coping mechanism, and there could be a number of reasons you’ve had a self-harm relapse. Whatever the reason, know that you’re not alone and we’re here for you.

If you’re not sure why you’re self-harming again, then try asking yourself have you:

  • Had a big event happen to you recently, like breaking up with someone you loved?
  • Lost someone special to you, or has a family member or friend been seriously ill?
  • Been injured in an accident or ill?
  • Been bullied at college, uni, or by people at work?
  • Felt stressed because of deadlines, too much work, or people asking a lot of you?
  • Felt depressed?
  • Drank a lot?
  • Been struggling with memories of distressing or traumatic events?

All of these issues could trigger a self-harm relapse. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you aren’t still able to recover from self-harm. Recovery is a complicated journey and a relapse is a common thing that happens to lots of people who self harm.

Are you dealing with trauma?

Events such as death, injury or other trauma can trigger a rush of emotions, as can difficult situations you find yourself in.

“After a big event – like a loss of a friend or family member – you can become overwhelmed with different feelings,” says Lisa Clark, Personal Health and Social Education (PHSE) practitioner. “You might be sad at the loss of someone you love, feel angry that they’ve left you and loneliness at the space they’ve left in your life. These emotions can affect your self-esteem, knocking your confidence and making everyday tasks much harder than they normally would be.”

Have you got emotional overload?

It can be really difficult to deal with lots of emotions at once. You may even feel like your head is going to explode. Self-harming can be one way you deal with this – to relieve the pressure. If there has been a negative event, such as a parent leaving, this can result in your self-esteem dropping without you even realising. You might not feel as confident about handling situations, so self-harming becomes a release you return to.

Does self-harm help you cope?

When problems feel unmanageable it can be easy to return to ways of responding to pressure that you have used before. If this is the case, and returning to self-harming for a while is what helps you deal with the world, then think about how you can go about it as safely as possible.

How do I recover after a self-harm relapse?

Think about the things that helped you stop or control your self-harm before. These strategies have already worked for you and may work again. You may have found particular distraction techniques useful so you could try them again or try different ones.

Remember: you’re not the only one who has gone back to self-harming after stopping, so don’t see this as a step back, see it as a temporary coping mechanism you used to get you through a tough time.

Only when you’re ready to stop, and when you feel able to cope with what life is throwing at you, can you start getting back on track. Looking after yourself generally is important – eating well, getting enough sleep and exercise can all play a useful part in this. A good way to de-stress, Lisa suggests, is to: “Get outside, take in some fresh air and exercise, even if it’s just a brisk walk. Any exercise gets the feel-good hormones, endorphins, pumping round your body and makes you feel happier and more positive.”

Read our interview with Maddie Bruce, who talks about some self-harm alternatives and her recovery journey. You can also watch her video here:

Don’t bottle it up

“If life becomes hard to deal with, don’t keep your thoughts and feelings bottled up,” explains Lisa. “Keep a journal or diary to dump all your negative thoughts in. Write in it before bed so you’re able to sleep, and as soon as you wake up so you’re able to face the day. Once you’ve written out all the bad stuff, be sure to find at least three things to be thankful for too – it’ll help keep things in perspective. If writing isn’t your bag, get creative with your thoughts and channel it into a painting, doodles or drawing.”

Finally, try to talk to someone you can trust about your self-harm relapse – a friend, brother, sister, grandparent, parent, teacher, school nurse, social worker or doctor (GP). Talking about self-harm can be difficult, but is a really important step and can help you to feel less isolated and alone.

You can also find free and confidential support by speaking to our team here, via our self-harm awareness day hub, or heading to our community boards. At the Mix we want to increase self-harm awareness and make sure that self-harm is something that everyone feels comfortable talking about.

Next Steps

  • Our Crisis Messenger provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK. If you’re aged 25 or under, you can text THEMIX to 85258
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 116 123
  • Under 19? You can get confidential help with self-harm from ChildLine – either over the phone or through an online chat.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Anthony Burt

Updated on 11-Jun-2020

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