Self-harm is a form of coping. Survivors of sexual violence sometimes self-harm.
There are many different reasons for this including to express emotional pain; to block out painful thoughts; to become ‘grounded’ in the here and now; to punish themselves/others; to prompt self-care; to communicate with others; and to get the support and care they need.
Self-harm can take many forms including:
- Scratching or burning
- Overdosing on alcohol or drugs
- Over- or under-eating
- Overworking or over-exercising
- Neglecting emotional or physical wellbeing
People often hide their injuries because they fear others’ reactions or disapproval. This can affect relationships and can be very isolating.
How does self-harm affect survivors of sexual violence?
Sexual violence is traumatic and affects self-esteem and self-confidence. Many survivors of sexual violence do not get the support they need at the time, and do not have the chance to talk about the complex and painful feelings associated with trauma. Self-harm can be a way to cope with feelings of betrayal, anger, pain and isolation which may ‘work’ in the short-term but may become problematic over time.
There may be physical health consequences from self-harming such as injury, infection or addiction. It can be helpful to keep first aid supplies to treat any injuries. It is best to get medical attention if an injury is deeper or more severe than usual.
Survivors may have to cope with other people’s negative attitudes or lack of understanding about self-harming. People, including professionals, may see the behaviour but not the underlying reasons. People who do not understand may react with shock, anger or frustration.
Managing feelings which may lead to self-harming
- Talking to someone supportive (we can help with this)
- Attending a self-help group
- Building up self-esteem and self-confidence and reducing self-blame
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Relaxation and breathing techniques
- Exercise and activity
- Developing new coping strategies
You can find out more in our page on coping after sexual violence.
Alternative ways to release feelings
- Tear up phone books/newspapers
- Fill a sink with ice cubes and plunge hands into it/hold ice cubes
- Hold a bag of frozen peas against your body
- Write on yourself in red marker or red food colouring
- Paint face paints on the place where you usually hurt yourself
- Punch/scream into a pillow
- Smash up old china (you can buy this second hand)
- Go to the golf driving range
- Use a punch bag
- Write a letter/draw a picture of what is bothering you and then rip it up
- Go for a walk/run/swim/exercise
- Draw/paint what you feel inside
- Use play-dough to express yourself - you can also squash it and throw it about
- Take bottles to the bottle bank and smash them up safely
- Rip up old clothes or sheets
- Eat a chilli/something hot
- Have a cold bath/shower
- Throw eggs in the shower/outside
- Throw stones in the river/sea
Things you can do to minimise hurt/injury when you self-harm
- Avoid drugs and/or alcohol if you think you are likely to self-harm, so you don’t accidentally wound yourself more seriously than you intend.
- Prevent infection by using something clean when you cut. Never share what you use to self-injure. Try to avoid areas where there are major veins and arteries close to the surface. Make sure your tetanus jags are up to date.
- Put burns under cold water for 20/30 minutes. Burns and scalds can be more severe than you think - the pain can be far worse later. Cling !lm, loosely covering the burn, can act as a temporary dressing. You can buy creams and sprays for burns from your chemist.
- You should get medical attention for burns larger than a 50p piece, or that have penetrated deep into the skin.
- Be prepared. Have dressings and antiseptics ready so you can care for your injuries. You can learn more about looking after wounds, cuts, burns and so on from a first aid book, someone you trust who knows about first aid or perhaps the nurse in your health centre/GP practice.
- Call an ambulance if blood is spurting from a wound. Wrap the injury in a clean towel or tea towel and try to stay calm.
- Clean any cuts with gauze swabs, not cotton wool. Cover with a dry, non-adhesive dressing. It can be useful to keep antiseptic creams and sprays handy. You can use paper stitches to close superficial wounds.
- If any of your cuts are gaping and deep you need medical attention. Try to keep the injured part raised and apply pressure until you get to hospital (A&E), to reduce the bleeding.
- If cuts or burns become infected it is important to get medical treatment.
- You can go into shock if you lose a lot of blood or if you have severe or large burns. Call an ambulance if this happens.
- If you drink bleach or any other corrosive liquid you can be in danger of poisoning. You must get medical advice or attention immediately.
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