Stress as a Precursor to Self-Harm

People self-harm for many different reasons and self-harm in and of itself is not a symptom of bipolar disorder. But like many people with extreme pain in their lives, many people with bipolar disorder do self-harm.

I have been one of them.

And as sure as I’m sitting here I can tell you, stress precipitated most of the indecencies of self-harm.


We all get stressed. Stress is simply indicative that something is wrong in our environment. Maybe we couldn’t pay a bill, maybe we had a fight with a friend maybe there is a big presentation due at work. Stress, we all have it.

And when you’re under stress your body releases all sort of chemicals like cortisol creating an interruption in the homeostasis (even level) of the body. Your nervous system literally changes in response to stress.

Dealing with Stress

So we have to deal with that stress in order to get our nervous system back to normal. We do this in lots of ways: taking hot baths, ranting with a friend, dealing with the problem and yes, self-harming.

Why would self-harming be in the list? Well, it seemed like the best idea at the time.

Sometimes Stress and Anxiety Won’t Go Away

Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts we can’t get our nervous system to calm the heck down. We try every coping mechanism we know, and yet still, the stress, anxiety, worry and fear remain. (Also see Stress Leads to Anxiety which leads to Self-Harm.)

This is when self-harm tends to take place. The stress tends to build up over time and with no functioning coping techniques the person harms themselves.

Why Would You Self-Harm?

That’s easy. You self-harm because you have no other functioning coping techniques. You are in pain, your nervous system is screaming, and you need to rid yourself of this and the only way you know to do it is through self-harm.

It not really as crazy as it sounds. As water will always seek to be level in a glass, the human body seeks to be level also and one extreme problem (your nervous system out of whack) needs one extreme solution (self-harm) to bring back the equilibrium.

Avoiding Self-Harm

Knowing that self-harm tends to happen during times of stress, you can try to use that knowledge to avoid self-harm. Stop the cycle before the urge to self-harm even emerges. You can:

  • Learning new techniques for coping with stress
  • Stay away from self-harm triggers when you’re feelings stress
  • Try to nip stress in the bud and deal with it before it becomes out of control
  • Put a health stress action plan into place that you agree to follow when you’re feelings stressed out
  • Reach out to others in times of stress; don’t spend time alone
  • See a professional that specializes in treating self-harm

And know this: you are not alone. Thousands of people across the country self-harm. It is not uncommon, but it is treatable. You don’t have to live that way.

For more on self-harm see the HealthPlace section on self-injuryCall a helpline for immediate assistance.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

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15 Responses to Stress as a Precursor to Self-Harm

  1. cindyaka says:

    I used to bite my hand when I was stressed out. Fortunately I don’t have any residual marks or scars from it. I did this before I was diagnosed with Bi-Polar,the diagnosis and meds have helped me stop the biting. Staying away from and knowing the kinds of situations that put me under stress has also helped with that. I now also take my Klonopin when I know I’m going into an unknown or stressful situation. It really helps nip things in the bud.

  2. mef123 says:

    I self harm. I have many scars on my body. I did it before my bipolar diagnosis and after. And am still doing it now. I do it when I’m stressed, sad, lonely. Right now I’m all alone during the day and very sad to be alone. I feel like I have nothing. I really appreciate you writing this and letting people know that they are not alone and that it can get better.


  3. Carey says:

    I have only recently relapsed into a self-harming stress induced state; I had messed up my meds and thus, I was unstable for approximately 6 weeks. During that time, I was being lied to by someone who I thought I could trust and this resulted in me cutting myself.

    I have found, though, that when I am stressed and want to injure myself (since then) the best remedy for me is to stop, think about what the injury will do for me (temporary relief), and plot out what will really give me the relief I need… My ways for that are unconventional but they have worked thus far.

  4. Hi Cindyaka,

    Yes, correct diagnosis and treatment can certainly stop self-harming behaviors. When you’re in more pain, you have more to harm about. Pretty simple there.

    I don’t generally advise a medication solution to stress because, well, that’s a very contentious issue in the community, but that being said, that can be very effective for people. Congrats on finding a way that works for you.

    - Natasha

  5. Hi Michele,

    I’m sorry to hear you’re still self-harming. That’s a pretty negative thing to have to live with.

    But you’re right, you’re not alone and you _can_ get better. Every day just a little bit. People are there for you.

    - Natasha

  6. Hi Carey,

    I think that’s a great thing to do. That sounds like cognitive behavioral therapy at work to me. And if it works for you, that sounds great to me.

    Thanks for sharing your technique.

    - Natasha

  7. Ash says:

    About a year before my diagnosis I turned to self-harming as a coping strategy for the crippling panic attacks I was having at the time. I worked with a therapist to quit, but I sometimes will slip up.

    One strategy I use to prevent hurting myself is I try to picture that the body part I will be doing harm to is that of someone else. Would I take a knife to someone I love’s wrist? No. Most of the time, that makes me stop.

  8. Puddles says:

    I occasionally still have the urge to self harm, however i am very lucky to be involved in the BDSM community and this gives me a healthy outlet for that sort of requirement.

  9. alwayssick says:

    Self-harm is a potential problem for anyone with any mental illness. Definitely not limited to Bipolar Disorder. I hadn’t had any urges for over a decade, but recently those temptations have returned. I quickly dismiss them, and haven’t allowed myself to give in to it, but it’s not easy. And yes, the trigger is stress…stress of unemployment/under employment. Working so hard, and getting very little in return…yeah, definitely feeling the stress there and it’s fueling the self-harm fire.

  10. Hi Ash,

    Thanks for sharing that. That’s a very graceful and enlightened way of looking at it, I think.

    - Natasha

  11. Hi AlwaysSick,

    Nice to see you here :)

    You’re absolutely right, you need not have a bipolar diagnosis (or any diagnosis) for self-harm to be a problem.

    - Natasha

  12. Lee says:

    Thanks for the article. Shared it on our DBT Thought for the Day facebook page.
    I would not use the word indecency because it is invalidating for people who already suffer from countless instances of invalidation. Self-harm is a coping mechanism that is not effective in the long run and doesn’t support personal growth. Thought this was very helpful info.

  13. borderline says:

    I have self harmed in the past different ways.The clinic labeled me Borderline personality years ago.I changed my friendships to more meaningful supportive ones,and i dont hurt myself anymore because i want to be there for my friends in their times of need,and i cant do that if im lost in myself.

  14. Myriad says:

    Because you were talking about self-harm as a means to achieve homeostasis, I thought I might add some possible explanation as to how that could work.

    Stress has been known to lower the immune system. This might be why humans feel a need to self-harm when stressed – to reactivate the immune system again. When there’s open wounds, burns or other kinds of injury or even just pain, your immune system is going to have to get activated to repair the damage and keep infections away.

    Self-harming is not a human-only trait. Animals are known to do it too when experiencing prolonged periods of high amounts of stress.

    That being said, there are many, many reasons for people to self-harm, and only few are ever mentioned. It’s important to realize though that it does not always happen due to stress, even though it might be the most common sort.

  15. evan says:

    if you self harm, and your girlfriend made you promise that you weren’t going to ever again, but you did because you couldn’t control it, should you tell her (to be honest)? or should you keep it to yourself

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