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Identify Self Harm Triggers

Updated on December 31, 2009

What are self harm triggers?

Self harm triggers are those things that 'trigger' that self harm urge. Identifying a self harm trigger can be very difficult and as such the urge to self injure can seem to be totally impulsive and random for the person experiencing self harm urges.

If you decide to start the journey to freedom from self harm you are going to need to become aware of your triggers. This is a task easier said then done! It is so important because it gives you an understanding of what is going on in your mind and that can give you control over your choices.

I want to stress before we get started that this is one of the hardest processes in gaining control of your impulses. It will take time to re-program your brain to identify upsetting events that lead to the self injury triggers so you must be patient with yourself. If you do have a self harm relapse this is totally normal and a good chance to evaluate what happened exactly (in every minute detail). It's like they say, practice makes perfect and the more practice you get at discovering your triggers the more control you will have in the long term.

Have you had a self harm trigger?

Lets assume that you have made the decision to stop your self harm and want something more for yourself. You have done very well for awhile but then something happened. You suffered a relapse. You may have even had a really bad relapse, your self harm seems to have been worse then normal. Well this is actually very normal.

Your automatic responses have been challenged and given the chance to re-assert themselves with an emotional event. Think of self harm as an addiction with a mind of its own, this addiction is fighting for your attention and so is going to be stronger then you are used to. By coming down hard on yourself, thinking you have failed your self harm addiction is trying to stay dominant in your mind. The good thing is you have challenged your automatic responses and that is the first step to changing them. This is your opportunity to identify one of your triggers and retrain your brain. 

Find that Self Harm Trigger

It may be that you have already figured out what your self harm trigger was. It could have been some big, blazing and obvious event like the loss of someone important to you. Perhaps you have been under stress and you already know that these are your triggers. For you I hope to write another article soon about alternate coping skills you can try when these big events happen. Chances are that there are some people who read this that have no big events triggering them and cannot see a trigger for what happened. These are the sort of triggers that I wish to help with in this article.

Small self harm triggers are insidious, these ones are the ones that lead us to feeling like there is no logic to our emotions and as such no way to change or heal. I actually had so many of these that I really thought I was incurable. When I started doing behavioral analysis to identify individual triggers I found it extremely uncomfortable and got to a point where I would avoid self harm so as to avoid behavioral analysis! I really hated it and it was the most effective part of the therapy. This is why I highly suggest that you find someone you trust to help you with this, someone who can gently but firmly push you to examine every second that lead to the self harm urge as well as any skills you tried between the urge and the action (I would not be surprised if you tried something). This person can also prompt you to decide what you might try next time to cope with the urge until it passes.

You might not have a person such as this available to you. Self harm is a private and secret thing often because there is a lot of misunderstanding about self harm out there. Just because your environment does not offer supportive people you feel safe with does not mean you cannot begin to identify some of your triggers if not all of them but it is going to be harder I am sorry to say. Try to find any and all supports for yourself that you can, including supportive chat rooms online or best friends who want to help in any way they can (even if its just a distraction for an evening of fun). Also keep yourself motivated with rewards but avoid any self punishment for 'failure' as in reality this is no failure and is a part of the process.

When you look at a self harm event and all events around the self harm episode there are some questions you can ask yourself. When did I first feel the beginnings of a self harm urge? What was I doing? Who was around? Leave no stone unturned.

I had an urge to self harm early on in my recovery that seemed totally mystifying until I looked at it with such scrutiny that I realized that it was a commercial that had triggered me. It was one of those commercials that show starving people in need of aid. I have always been a sensitive person and seeing those images was not even something I was conscious of but it lead to feelings of anger and injustice in the world, which in turn lead to depression. I still feel upset when I see these sorts of images and wish there was something I could do but I realize that my self harm does not help anyone and will not change the real problem. My coping skill in this situation was to understand that accepting is not the same as approving, and I must accept that this is the world and I don't have to like it either. 

A huge tip that anyone can use to help them cope with the ups and downs of life and vital for you in your journey towards emotional freedom is this. Your physical state will have a huge impact on your emotional state. Things to think about and be aware of at all times are things like, are you eating well? Are you sleeping well? Are you angry? Are you lonely? There is a saying that you can think of, HALT = Hungry Angry Lonely and Tired, these things will make you more vulnerable to self harm triggers. Protect yourself from these and you will limit how often you experience triggers you feel to be stronger then you as a healthy body is a stronger body.

Self Harm Help to Come

My next article on self harm is intended to focus on the skills you can use when you know you are experiencing a trigger. These skills will include distress tolerance and crisis survival skills such as distraction, self soothing, improving the moment and thinking about pros and cons. I encourage you to think a little about what you might try to tolerate distress and crisis. I shall wrap this up with one such skill that is employed by people who struggle with many forms of negative coping skills, take things one day at a time, or one hour at a time or one minute or one second at a time. All the best for your success in this most difficult task to self improvement and self healing.


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