Life After Self-Harm: How to do a Recovery Plan

young sad woman crying at home

By Spicevicious

Hey Psych2Go-ers!

Have any of you made the decision to stop self-harming, only to wonder, “Where do I go from here?”

Or maybe you’ve started your recovery journey, but find yourself overwhelmed or discouraged by your self-harm triggers.

If that sounds like you, then you need a plan.  Even though engaging in self-harm is a sign of some serious mental health concerns, those who engage in it say many times it can morph into something they plan their days around, one of the few activities that allows them to express themselves.  Think of your self-harm recovery plan as your road map to navigating life after self-harm.  

In honor of our Psych2Go-ers who want a little help with their self-harm recovery journey, here are a few tips on creating a recovery plan.  Grab a notebook and let’s get started!

  1.  Know Your Why.

What made you want to stop self-harming?  Were you tired of keeping secrets from the people who care about you?  Was your self-harm destroying your life?

Regardless of why you decided to walk down the recovery path, it might help you to remind yourself of the reasons you are getting well.  Here are a couple ways to stay focused:

  • Write a list of all the reasons you stopped self-harming on index cards.  You can decorate the cards or leave them plain.  Choose whatever connects with you the most.  Now put the cards in places where you will see them.  Tape them on your mirror, use them as bookmarks, or tape one in your locker.  Just make sure you can connect with your recovery reasons every day.  This tip requires a little privacy.  If you live in an unsupportive environment, it might be better to tape your cards to a notebook and use them as journal prompts.
  • Create a recovery symbol.  A good recovery symbol uses aspects of your reasons for stopping self-harm in the first place.  For example, you might be motivated by the thought of no longer hiding your arms under long sleeves or not holding in your feelings anymore.  Therefore, the right recovery symbol for you might be a proud lion or an anime character you think is fearless.  Maybe you choose a color or the date you started your recovery as your symbol.  You can even make a recovery symbol out of your name or a word that expresses why you want to recover, such as healthy or free.  As long as you feel connected and hopeful when you look at this symbol, anything works.
  • Keep a daily gratitude list.  Your list does not need to be long.  You do not even have to name more than one thing you are grateful for each day.  However, reminding yourself of why you are choosing recovery everyday can help keep your focus on how much you are changing for the better.  Anyone who has gone on a diet or exercise kick will tell you that seeing results is the best motivation.
  1. Plan to Check In Daily.  

Your daily habits create your recovery.  If your daily routine does not support good mental health, then you are making yourself more vulnerable to a self-harm relapse.  Meanwhile, you still have to balance your recovery with the rest of your life.

Please do not let this discourage you.  

Plenty of people just like you have successfully stopped self-harm by making their daily routine work for them.  Those who have been in recovery for years know that checking in with themselves daily helps them stay present and mindful.  These daily check-ins help recovering people deal with any potential problems before things spiral into crisis mode.  

And the best part?  Anyone has time to do it.

The most effective check-ins take about five minutes and can be done as many times per day as you need.  All you need is a quick check-in template and your phone alarm.  Just write your template where you will see it and set your phone alarm for the times you want to check in with yourself every day.  Your check-in template should allow you to answer questions about your thoughts and feelings in one or two-word answers.  Here is a sample of a check-in template you can use everyday:

  • Right now, I feel _____________.
  • Positive feeling today: _____________.
  • Negative or challenging feeling today: ________________.
  • Am I feeling triggered?  (yes/no)
  • If yes, what’s triggering me is ________________.
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 representing “most triggered”), my trigger level is ____.
  • My plan to deal with my trigger is ____________________.
  • Right now, I am thinking __________________.

You can also check-in with yourself by using a body scan meditation.  There are several great body scan meditations on YouTube, but you can do a body scan without a guided video.  Here’s how:

  • Get comfortable.  This meditation can be done lying down or sitting.  As long as you can relax in the position, you can do this.
  • Take a few deep breaths.  Breathe in slowly and try to match your inhales to your exhales.  
  • Send your breath to your feet.  You can visualize a ball of white light or an MRI around your feet.  Whatever you visualize, see it scanning your feet for any pain or tension.
  • Scan your entire body, moving up from your feet to your head.  Notice any tense areas.  Notice any thoughts you are having.  Notice your feelings.  
  • Send your breath to any tense areas.  Keep breathing steadily until you feel less stress and tension in that area, then move on to the next area.

Leave a comment if you want a guided body scan meditation on Psych2Go.

  1. Don’t Let Your Stress Build.

Take a second to remember what you were thinking or feeling whenever you self-harmed.  You may have caught yourself thinking things like:

  • “I can’t take this anymore.”
  • “I’m worthless.”
  • “If anyone really knew me, they’d run.”
  • “I can’t do this.”
  • “Nobody ever understands me.”
  • “I don’t know how to get out of this.”
  • “What do I do?”
  • “I can’t talk to anyone.”
  • “It just keeps piling up and doesn’t stop.”
  • “Nothing I do makes a difference.”

If you’re like most people, your self-harming thoughts happened after negative situations in your life piled up until they became overwhelming.  Your task in recovery is to identify how these situations became the obstacles that left you feeling ashamed, frustrated, and hopeless.   

Does this sound like a lot of work?

It is actually not as much work as you would think.  The key to not letting stress build is to expand on your daily check-in.  Try doing these things daily:

  • Listen to yourself during your daily check-in.  One of the benefits of doing a daily check-in is giving yourself the opportunity to communicate what you are truly thinking and feeling.  Make the most of this communication by taking the time to listen to what you are saying to yourself.  The best way to do this is twofold.  First, keep a notebook of your check-ins so that you can see any patterns that emerge over time.  Second, be sure to thank yourself for letting your thoughts and feelings be known after each check-in.  Expressing daily gratitude for your emotional honesty will encourage you to stay honest, rather than burying your feelings until they become a huge self-harm trigger.
  • Catch your trigger thoughts and counter them.  Do you recognize any of the thoughts at the beginning of this section?  If so, you have successfully identified some of your trigger thoughts.  Although picking out the thoughts that trigger self-harm is important, the real work is done when you confront and disprove these thoughts.  You can practice this by using the list at the beginning of this section.  Take each thought and write a statement that makes the thought false.  HINT: Your trigger thoughts will often include the words “can’t,” “always,” “never,” “nobody,” “everybody,” or “nothing.”  The best way to prove these thoughts false is to counteract the words that make it an all-or-nothing statement.  For example, if your trigger thought is “nobody cares about me,” remember a recent time when someone showed that they cared.  Now rewrite that statement to read: “Right now I feel that nobody cares about me, but I know people have shown me they care.”  By phrasing your counter statement in the form of “right now I feel, but I also know ____”, you are allowing yourself to feel your feelings while acknowledging that things can change.
  • Find your environmental and relational triggers and plan for them.  Sometimes a simple thing like being at a certain place, such as the restaurant where you and your ex broke up or the park that’s on your way home from school, can trigger self-harm thoughts.  Other times, these thoughts can be triggered by being around certain people, or even thinking about dealing with them.  These are your environmental and relational triggers.  Not sure if you have environmental or relational triggers?  Write a list of all your self-harm triggers.  Once you have done that, think about each trigger.  If the trigger is a feeling you have—such as being lonely, stressed, or scared—you can label this as an emotional trigger.  If the item on your list is a place or an inanimate object, such as a specific food or television show, label it as an environmental trigger.  Your relational triggers are going to be the conversations you dread having, or people who leave you feeling drained, anxious, angry, or sad.  Now think about your environmental and relational triggers and ask yourself these questions:  
    • What are some emotions that these triggers stir up in you?   
    • How can you acknowledge this emotion, while reminding yourself that it does not control you?  
    • Is this a trigger best avoided today?  
    • If you cannot avoid this trigger, can you leave early or bring a supportive friend or comfort object?  
    • Can you change your interactions with this person by doing something differently?
  • Keep a resource list.  Many people have self-harm relapses because they do not know how else to handle an overwhelming emotion or situation.  The anxiety or sadness created by your trigger often makes it difficult to figure out how to get past it when you are in the moment.  This is why you will want to keep a nearby list of people, phone numbers, or things that can help you.  You will want to keep this list in your wallet, on your phone, in your recovery notebook, or anywhere where you can find it and review it.  Here are some things that you might want to put on your recovery resource list:
    • Your reasons for wanting to recover from self-harm.
    • The names and numbers of good friends or family members you can text or call for support.
    • Meditation videos or videos you find funny.
    • The contact information for your county’s crisis line, warm line, or self-harm hotlines.
    • Your therapist’s phone number and email address.

But what about you, Psych2go-ers?  Was there anything in this section that you could relate to, or want to know more about?  Tell us about it in the comments.

  1. Know Your Way Back.

The bad news is, relapse is a part of recovery for many people.  Maybe your life gets busy and your recovery from self-harm gets put on the back burner.  Or maybe you were making all the right recovery moves, but a sudden loss, break up, or pressure at school completely catches you off guard.  Whatever the case, the old intrusive thoughts and urges to self-harm can come back.

There is some good news, however.  This is going to sound a little weird, but relapse has a major blessing attached to it.

People who are successful in recovery know that relapse comes in stages.  The fact that relapses happen in stages means you can learn how your triggers build up to a relapse.  Understanding your own triggers and relapses can help you prevent them, if you know these stages of relapse:

  • Emotional Relapse:  This first stage of relapse happens even before you have the urge or thought to harm yourself.  An emotional relapse usually signals your self-care has been lacking.  Signs that you might be headed for an emotional relapse include: you have been feeling more anxious than usual; you start stuffing your feelings; you feel especially angry or isolated; you start telling people you are fine when you really are not; you start avoiding food, eating more junk food, or stress eating; and your sleeping habits change.
  • Mental Relapse:  A mental relapse is the first stage of relapse that involves actively thinking about self-harm.  During the mental relapse stage, you might feel conflicted as part of you wants to self-harm.  Warning signs of a mental relapse include: reminiscing about or getting back in contact with the people, places, and things that trigger self-harm; lying or becoming defensive; you start pushing others away; romanticizing your self-harm; telling yourself that you can self-harm once in a while; and making a conscious plan to return to self-harm.
  • Physical Relapse:  This final stage of relapse is where you go back to the self-harming behavior.  During the physical relapse stage, you are experiencing overwhelming emotions and may have decided that self-harm is the only way you can cope. 

Identifying your relapse signs is only half the battle.  The other half of this task is figuring out how you can use this information to prevent further relapses.  Here are a couple hints for working with your personal relapse signs:

  • Understand that you can get back into recovery at any stage of relapse.  It does not matter whether you catch yourself at the emotional or physical stage of relapse.  You can always get back into recovery from self-harm.  Everyone deserves recovery, you included.   
  • Be kind to yourself.  Having or giving in to your self-harming urges does not automatically make you a loser or a failure.  Tearing yourself down for relapsing will only make you feel ashamed, which will only harm your recovery.  The countering statements discussed earlier in this article can help you neutralize any overly self-critical things you might be telling yourself.
  • Keep a list of coping skills for each stage of relapse.  Not sure what to do if you find yourself in relapse mode?  Try some of these coping skills:
    • Coping Skills for Emotional Relapse:  call the people on your resource list and talk it out, get more exercise, clean up your diet, make sure you get enough sleep, and honor your boundaries.
    • Coping Skills for Mental Relapse:  talk to someone on your resource list, reach out to an online support group, avoid high risk situations, use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) techniques to acknowledge and counter your self-harming thoughts, and practice meditation and other relaxation techniques.
    • Coping Skills for Physical Relapse:  get help immediately, even if this means checking yourself into a crisis facility for a couple days; write a timeline of your relapse and review your mental and emotional symptoms; forgive yourself; and resolve to do one small thing differently each day.

Take a couple minutes to think about how you can use this in your recovery.  What are your mental and emotional relapse signs?  For those Psych2Go-ers who have successfully moved past these stages and avoided relapse, how did you do it?  Let us know in the comments.

  1. Celebrate the Little Victories.

Have you ever gotten to a good place in your self-harm recovery and wondered, “Now what?”

You are not alone.  People in early recovery often put so much time and energy into developing new habits and working through their issues that they forget to step back and enjoy what comes next.  This often looks like being uncomfortable with a drama-free life, happiness, and   celebrating your victories.

In recovery, how you handle your successes is every bit as important as how you deal with your low moments.  Not being able to handle your life when things are going well can result in imposter syndrome, self-sabotage, more anxiety, and maybe even kick off the relapse cycle.  But your success does not have to be stressful.  All you need are a few tools in your daily recovery routine to help you handle the “now what?” feeling.  Try some of these tips:

  • Make a monthly anniversary date.  Celebrate each month of recovery by eating your favorite food, taking a mental health day, going out for coffee, people watching at your favorite outdoor mall, going on a road trip with your dog, going to a concert, or whatever you enjoy doing.  The self-care date does not have to be elaborate or expensive, as long as it is meaningful to you and breaks up your routine for the day.
  • Thank yourself for your recovery.  Make it a point each day to list a reason why not self-harming was a good thing you did for yourself.  List everything that you have the freedom or mental clarity to enjoy in recovery that you would have not cared about when you were engaging in self-harm.  Talk about how your recovery has changed the way you look at yourself.  Sincerely thank yourself for these things and remind yourself of this: if you are strong enough to handle the bad times and become a better person, then you are more than strong enough to learn how to handle success.
  • Start a recovery savings fund.  For each day that you do not harm yourself, put aside a small amount of money—even a few cents—in a clear jar.  It may not seem like much, but physically being able to see the money in the jar grow because you stayed in recovery might be a tangible reminder that what you are doing is getting more valuable with time and practice.  People tend to have deep emotional attachments to money. Making the comparison between your money and your mental health can act as an ongoing reminder to keep prioritizing your mental wellbeing, even when it is uncomfortable.  
  • Keep a victory list.  It is just as important to list your victories as it is to list your triggers.  During a calm point in your day, take out your recovery notebook and write down all of your small victories.  Be sure to include the times when you confronted your feelings, instead of stuffed them down or acted out; how you dealt with stress, instead of shutting down or relapsing; and how you showed up and were present in your own life.  Although it might feel like bragging at first, keeping a victory list reminds you that you are worthy of recovery and are more than your self-harm.
  • Meditate daily.  Keeping your head space calm can help you catch your negative self-talk.  Once you are able to pick out the critical inner voice, you are then able to counter its negativity with more accurate statements about your recovery and worth.

This is just a short list of things you can do to work through your feelings of being a fraud or fear of success.  The best victory dances happen as small daily reminders and regular anniversary celebrations.  Whatever you choose to do needs to be:

  • Simple
  • Something you have easy access to
  • Done regularly
  • Meaningful for you

You have worked hard to improve your mental health and deserve to acknowledge it.

What are some of your experiences with fear of success and imposter syndrome?  Have either of these things ever sabotaged your recovery?  How did you deal with this?  Tell us in the comments below.

Conclusion

Choosing to recover from self-harm often proves to be more difficult than you thought it would be, especially when you realize the daily choices they make creates your recovery.  Early recovery comes with a lot of confusion and anxiety, in addition to the temptation to fall back into your old patterns.  But you can do it and you are worth it.

Recovery is difficult, but not impossible.  Millions of people have successfully recovered from self-harm by having a recovery plan.  The tools in your recovery plan can help you navigate your overwhelming feelings and the daily choices you will have to make.  Just stick to the plan and remember, you are not alone.

Nobody has to suffer in silence.  If you need mental health counseling or treatment, please contact your insurance company, local college’s student counseling clinic, or your county crisis line.  Keep coming back to Psych2Go for more information on mental illness and reach out to your support system and other community members if you need support.  Help is out there!

Please use these online resources:

Self-Injury Recovery Anonymous (SIRA) is an online support group for people struggling with self-harm:  https://www.selfmutilatorsanonymous.org/

Crisis Text Line allows you to contact a crisis counselor 24/7 via text or What’s App:  https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/self-harm/#what-is-self-harm-1

NAMI Helpline is a 24/7 resource for anyone who is struggling with a mental health issue.  Call: 800-950-NAMI or text NAMI to 741741

Spicevicious is a mental health professional by day, tarot reader by night.  You can check out her blog at https://thespiceisright.wordpress.com/tag/spicevicious/ for predictions, tarot and spell info, and off-beat observations of the human condition.  As always, any information provided here is for entertainment purposes only.  If you need mental health counseling or treatment, please contact your insurance company, local college’s student counseling clinic, county crisis line, or keep up with Psych2Go for more information.

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