• A self-harm relapse occurs when someone starts self-harming again after abstaining for a period of 3-4 weeks.
  • A self-harm relapse, which might involve actions such as cutting, bruising, or striking oneself, can be triggered by recent trauma, flashbacks, an abrupt increase in stress, and other unique factors.
  • Self-harm relapses can be managed with help from a mental health professional, and by using alternative behaviors, such as ice water, intense exercise, or even tattoos to stimulate the nervous system.
  • A self-harm relapse can be frustrating, and might lower someone’s self-esteem as well as cause physical injury—however, a relapse is just one small stepping stone along the path to recovery.

A self-harm relapse occurs when someone engages in self-harming behavior after a period of approximately 3-4 weeks of abstaining. A self-harm relapse can happen via the same mechanism of self-harm or a different behavior.

During a relapse period and the hours or days afterward, the individual may face additional temptation to engage in self-harm behaviors and may suffer from low self-esteem and guilt. However, the recovery process is never a linear path—and those who experience a self-harm relapse can find solace and continued guidance from healthy alternative behaviors and the support of a mental health professional. 

What Is a Self-Harm Relapse?

As explained above, a self-harm relapse involves re-engaging in harmful behaviors to one’s body, such as cutting, burning, bruising, or otherwise causing damage to themselves. These behaviors may be able to be self-controlled, but can create a dangerous situation—a crisis—for the person engaging in this self-destructive behavior. 

Self-harming behaviors may be triggered by a variety of factors, some of which might involve: 

  • Reflecting on past traumatic experiences
  • Involuntary PTSD flashbacks or nightmares
  • Increasing amounts of stress from work or domestic life
  • Grief, anxiety, and anger
  • Depressive episodes, such as those caused by mood disorders
  • Recent emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • And many other unique situations

A relapse is best navigated by seeking assistance from a mental health professional, or if the situation is truly dire, contacting emergency services to ensure the safety of the person going through a self-harm relapse. 

How Do You Handle a Self-Harm Relapse?

As mentioned above, the most important thing to do, if the self-harming behavior has caused superficial injuries, is to consult with a mental health provider. However, it’s still essential to treat the injuries, as infections are very common in sufferers of self-harm.

Make sure the wound is clean, disinfected, and properly bandaged or wrapped. Ensure that the individual does not require stitches or medical intervention. Once these injuries have been addressed, remind yourself that a relapse is part of the process—a frustrating but fixable experience. 

Also important to remember is that by definition, a relapse means you’ve already gone a length of time without self-harming, which is the first step toward a full recovery. Observe how far you’ve already come in your journey. 

There have likely been previous days where you wanted to self-harm but didn’t. You can (and will) recover.

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What Are Some Alternatives to Self-Harm Which Can Be Encouraged as a Way of Managing Distress?

Alternatives to self-harm can vary and are person-specific. Typically, though, these involve healthy—or healthier—activities that are physically intense or invigorating but don’t damage the body in any way. 

Alternative coping strategies to avoid a self-harm relapse may involve: 

  • Splashing your face with ice water
  • Taking a cold shower
  • Practicing yoga to help manage anxiety and other tough emotions
  • Eating something spicy
  • Exercising, especially weightlifting
  • Soaking in a hot tub or sauna
  • Chewing gum or ginger root candy

Physically intense activities can satisfy your desire to stimulate the nervous system without causing temporary or permanent damage to your body. In fact, many of the above activities are considered healthy self-care activities. 

Are Tattoos a Good Alternative to Self-Harm?

Tattoos are great alternatives to self-harm if you’re comfortable with permanent body artwork. Tattoos can hide scars and make it less likely that you’re going to engage in self-harm where you have a tattoo, considering the time, money, and resources that went into getting that tattoo.

I Just Had a Self-Harm Relapse. How Can I Make Myself Feel Less Ashamed?

Remember that progress and healing are not linear processes, and relapsing does not erase any of the progress and successes you’ve had in the past. Remind yourself of your progress. 

Practice acceptance skills and remind yourself that the hardest thing to accept about recovery is the possibility of relapse. If you’re currently seeing a therapist, you can bring up your self-harm relapse by being direct and preparing yourself to answer questions that your therapist might have.

It might feel invasive, but your therapist’s job is to ask a lot of questions to assess your safety and to ensure you’re receiving quality care from them—they may also refer you to a specialist. A therapist that has your best interests in mind.

They should react in a calm, supportive, and non-judgmental manner. With their added resources and skills you can learn new ways to prevent further self-harm relapses.