Using Self-Harm to Escape Overwhelming Circumstances

February 3, 2022 Kim Berkley

It can be tempting to self-harm to escape from something you feel otherwise unable to cope with. It's not an uncommon trigger, one many of us struggle with frequently. But it is a temptation worth resisting; there are better ways to cope.

Self-Harm as an (Unhealthy) Escape

When the going gets tough, sometimes it really gets tough. Molehills become mountains that seem impossible to climb, and potential disappointments suddenly appear inevitable. It's natural, during these times, to long for a way out. For some of us, using self-harm as an escape seems like a solution—perhaps the only one.

Everyone's story is different; I won't presume to try and tell yours. But in my case, when I get overwhelmed, I feel trapped. It's like standing in a room without doors or windows. It's suffocating, claustrophobic.

The first, obvious thing to try is breaking through the wall, but if you feel powerless—a common side effect of overwhelm—it's easy to convince yourself you lack the power to do so and stop yourself from even trying. So there you are, stuck with no way out and no tools to make a way out. What do you do?

You do what prisoners do. Unable to physically escape, you do whatever you can to mentally escape. For some of us, myself included, self-harm is a means of inducing relief—however fleeting—after long days spent struggling in silence. It feels, briefly, like opening a door where there wasn't one before.

But that's the vital thing to remember: it doesn't actually offer a way out. It just lets you pretend to escape. But all the while, you're still stuck exactly where you started, only worse off than before.

What to Do Instead of Using Self-Harm to Escape

If you feel the walls closing in as you read this, stop. Take a few minutes to step away from your phone, tablet, or computer and breathe. (Seriously, try a breathing exercise—it really does help.)

Congratulations, you've already taken your first step toward freedom.

How? Using your breath instead of using self-harm to escape a difficult situation is one of the easiest ways to cope healthily with overwhelm. If one breathing exercise doesn't work, there are myriad others to try—go with whatever feels most natural and soothing to you.

If you're ready to take another step, consider trying any of the following, either right now or in the nearest future possible:

  • Guided meditation or urge surfing
  • Yoga, walking, or other light exercise
  • Journaling or other creative outlets
  • Spending some time, even a few minutes, in nature
  • Checking something simple off of your to-do list
  • Listening to music that makes you feel happy and/or relaxed

The first hurdle in overcoming an overwhelming situation is to get that sense of overwhelm under control. Once you're calmer, you can think more clearly, and problem-solve more effectively. It's a tempting step to skip, but don't!

Next, I would strongly recommend reaching out to someone. I know you may have heard this a dozen times already, but it's for good reason. A therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional can help you not only with avoiding using self-harm as a coping method, but also help you work through the situation that you're seeking an escape from. Depending on the issue you are struggling with, there may also be hotlines you can call for help as well.

If you absolutely cannot (or are not ready to) connect with a professional or call a hotline at this time, at least consider whether there is someone in your life whom you trust enough to share your feelings with. Sometimes you just need an outside perspective to figure out the best solution to your problem. Even if this person cannot offer you any new solutions, simply being able to talk through your issue with them may help you gain the calm and clarity necessary to find an answer on your own.

APA Reference
Kim Berkley (2022, February 3). Using Self-Harm to Escape Overwhelming Circumstances, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 28 from

Author: Kim Berkley

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