Using Self-Harm to Cope with Suicidal Thoughts
It is common — and not entirely accurate — to assume that self-harm is a sign of suicidal thoughts and/or urges. Self-harm is a maladaptive coping mechanism with highly complex psychological and neurological underpinnings and cannot be reduced to simply a reaction to suicidal feelings. Not all of those who self-harm are suicidal and not all of those who are suicidal self-harm. This is an important point to remember when talking about self-harm in relation to suicidality, which can be a touchy subject for many.
In some cases, however, self-harm is used as a way to cope with both acute suicidal urges and more prolonged states of suicidal ideation. These were both, at various points in my personal experience with self-harm, true for me.
The Relationship Between Self-Harm and Suicidal Thoughts
Just as we change in ways both obvious and imperceptible every single day, our reasons for and use of self-harm also seem to change depending on hundreds of factors at any given moment, including mood, genetic predispositions, environment, external stressors, mental illness(es), physical health, etc.
It is not that self-harm is a symptom of suicidality, nor is it that suicidality is brought on by self-harm. Rather, it is that when a specific alchemy of different factors induces suicidal thoughts and/or urges, that specific alchemy can also change the way we use self-harm: namely, as a maladaptive way to cope with the suicidal thoughts and/or urges.
Why We Use Self-Harm to Deal with Suicidal Thoughts and Urges
There is a visceral immediacy to self-harm that cannot be replicated by other common coping mechanisms such as journaling, exercise, or meditation. It requires little to no preparation, does not take a lot of time, and its effects can be felt instantly and unquestionably — unlike, say, talk therapy, which requires a lot of planning and scheduling and must be carefully monitored over time in order to observe its effects.
This is why in the case of acute suicidal urges, many find themselves turning to self-harm for temporary relief. Acute suicidal urges are the result of a build-up of extreme psychological tension, and self-harm's main function is to relieve psychological tension, making it the easy, quick-fix option for those who do not yet know any other way of managing that tension effectively.
Sometimes, especially for those who live in a more general, almost chronic state of suicidal ideation, any moment of elevated stress can trigger the urge to self-harm. People who live with near-constant suicidal ideation may not necessarily realize how much tension they always carry because they have become accustomed to it. So in moments of vulnerability, they may feel a spike in emotional distress that, though not always suicidal in nature, still mimic that extreme tension self-harm can provide short-lived relief from.
But it is important to remember that though some people turn to self-harm as a way of coping with suicidal thoughts, self-harm is far more destructive than it is helpful and sabotages your ability to deal with the underlying cause of your suicidality by posing itself as a solution, or at least a viable substitute for one.
If you feel you may hurt yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately.
If you need help with distressing thoughts (including suicidal thoughts), call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
For more information on suicide, please see our suicide resources here.
Chang, K. (2018, September 5). Using Self-Harm to Cope with Suicidal Thoughts, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2018/9/using-self-harm-to-cope-with-suicidal-thoughts