TRIGGER WARNING: mentions of self harm and substance abuse.
I know. Once you find a coping skill that works for you, it can be hard to move away from it. However, some of the coping skills you think are healthy might do more harm than good.
You might be wondering: What exactly makes a coping skill unhealthy? Well, a coping skill can be unhealthy in several ways. If the skill has one or more of these factors, it can be deemed maladaptive (or unhealthy):
The question still stands: If some coping mechanisms are so bad, why are we attracted to them? Once again, there are numerous reasons for this. In a simple explanation, people turn to defective ways to cope, rather than beneficial mechanisms, because it provides both instant results and short-term “help”. These coping skills only temporarily mask the difficult emotions, while adaptive coping skills take longer to learn and get used to through practice. Healthy coping skills will help tremendously in the long run while also equipping you with the ability to handle stress, whereas unhealthy coping skills will only postpone the problem for a later time.
Some common examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms are, but aren’t limited to substance abuse (ex. Excessive drug or alcohol usage), self mutilation/sabotage, and acts of violence (ex. Harming others).
If you struggle, or have struggled with bad coping mechanisms - similar to the ones listed or different - chances are you have been seeking out alternatives in an attempt to free yourself of them. Alternatives such as these include finding other ways to feel the ‘sensation’, such as snapping a rubber band against your wrist to resist the urge to cut yourself, trying different ways to feel ‘intoxicated’ without actually consuming drugs or alcohol, and taking your anger out on a pillow instead of a wall or another person.
While these alternatives don’t cause direct harm, that doesn’t mean they are healthy. Things such as these can be potentially helpful with the process of moving away from negative coping mechanisms, however they’re not something you should stick with for longer than necessary.
Why are these coping skills unhealthy, exactly? Well, even though you’re not actively harming yourself, that is still the implication of acts such as these, is it not?
Though it keeps you from enduring serious harm, what will you do if these sensations are not enough? Or if you can’t use these methods? These are rhetorical questions since the answers are quite obvious: you will more than likely fall back onto those original coping mechanisms; anything to feel those sensations.
That’s why it’s best to distance yourself from the concept of them entirely. Ideally, you shouldn’t be inflicting harm upon yourself, getting violent, or feeling high. Instead, you should be focused on practicing healthy ways to relieve those intense emotions.
If you have suffered from these maladaptive habits, you have probably found yourself saying: “I can’t stop.”
Though it may seem so, this is not a fact. You can stop, but it’s going to be a hard hill to climb. This doesn’t mean you should jump straight to the conclusion that you will never overcome what you’re going through.
The best way to start removing these addictions from your habits is by ridding yourself of those things that tempt you. Remove all sharp objects that can trigger your urges, like razor blades, knives and pencil sharpeners away from your presence. If you can’t hide certain things, avoid directing your attention onto them. If you can’t do that, either, there are additional resources to support you - crisis lines, rehabilitation centres, support groups - anything you can think of. If you have someone to help you, make sure to keep open communication with them about your urges and emotions. By doing this, they can help you to the best of their abilities.
There are additional steps you can take to shift your focus away from those sensations, rather than focusing on different ways to feel them. I know from experience that taking care of yourself can be difficult, and becoming clean isn’t so easy -especially when it feels like nothing or nobody can help you. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and recognizing your unhealthy habits is the starting point of your marathon towards it.
Some of the best coping mechanisms I’ve developed over time are writing and drawing. These help me express my emotions adequately. There are various healthy coping skills out there.
I wish you the best of luck on your recovery journey, and I hope you’ll take what I said to heart. Practice self-nurturing! There are plenty of sources to help you, even if you don't have access to a therapist or direct help from professionals. There are several websites to both encourage and assist with your well-being and recovery, including helplines, hotlines, therapy aids, and us - Teenagers With Experience.
There will always be people who care, something to get clean for. Even if it seems like you’re always stuck in the dark, there will always be some light.
TW: brief mentions of self harm
CW: very brief mentions of dissociation, hallucinations, and intrusive thoughts
You don’t need to involve your family in your mental health journey, there are many other options.
You must have heard it before, when adults say “if you are struggling, reach out to a trusted adult”. What they don’t actually address is how difficult that really is. Mental health struggles are super alienating experiences that most high school kids tend to feel embarrassed about. Whether that is rational or not, it stops most of us from actually taking that step to “reach out”.
There are two main issues we have with asking for help; we think it means telling our parents what is going on inside of our heads, and it is incredibly emotionally vulnerable to step forward and tell someone you are struggling internally (in any way). So telling us we have to ask for help when we need it and never really elaborating is rather ineffective. We never hear what our options actually are.
I have a bunch of serious mental health issues. They started when I was ten. The first time I “reached out” was when I was seventeen. It took me almost a decade to follow the advice of the adults in my life. That’s almost a decade of mental torment that I, being a child, had no idea how to cope with. Yet I decided I would rather internalize all of it than speak to a single other soul about anything. To let you in on how bad my mental health was, without me “reaching out”, I am going to list some of the most prominent struggles I’ve gone through on my own:
-major depressive episodes starting at a young age (so bad I never showered or brushed my hair, and I was self harming at the age of 10)
-extreme social anxiety
-generalized anxiety to the point where my resting heart rate was around 130 bpm every time I got checked
-panic attacks that somehow went unnoticed by others
A little later on (9th grade +)
-my depression became seasonal, still pretty severe
-social anxiety got the slightest bit better, generalized became worse
All that and I never “reached out” because no one told me how to. I come from a family that doesn’t understand mental health issues and believes in a lot of stigma around different disorders. I couldn’t go to any of them about my struggles, and I didn’t think I could go to anybody else without my family being told or eventually finding out. It wasn’t until I emailed my school's social worker a year ago and asked her about confidentiality that I discovered that there were options for people in my situation.
Do know that I am from Canada, and a few things about my experience may be different depending on where you live. Hopefully you discover those pieces by following some of my advice.
The first step is to change your way of thinking about asking for help. If you are unsure of an adults willingness to support you, or how they may respond, keep in mind that you don’t have to connect with them about your actual struggles right away.
You can reach out about reaching out.
Pick your trusted adult, preferably a social worker because they are professionally trained to support you without parent-involvement. When you choose and eventually approach them, just ask if you can talk to them about your mental health, and make sure to clarify that you want confidentiality. It sounds hard, but it really is that simple; just open the conversation up. Again, this is way easier if you have a social worker at your school, because you can simply say you want to know the boundaries of their confidentiality rules and they have to tell you, and then you’re set to actually tell them what you’re struggling with (as long as it doesn’t exceed said boundaries). I have spoken to both my social worker and a few of my favourite teachers, and my family has never once been contacted. Just so you’re aware, the boundaries for a social worker are normally only self-harm related, for safety reasons, and I don’t suggest pushing them. It’s better to call/text a crisis line if you need private support.
Remember that you are in complete control here. This is a situation where you actually do get to call the shots when speaking to an adult. You get to decide what you do and don’t tell them, depending on your needs. Take full advantage of your power in that moment. If they ask a question you don’t feel comfortable answering, it is in your power to say that. Something that encouraged me to finally ask for support was understanding that I can withhold all of the information I want to. After talking about confidentiality, it’s time to test the waters. Start as small as you want, and see how they respond. I was super wary and vague when I first started talking to my school’s social worker, and now I consider her a friend (I know, super embarrassing). Basically, you don’t owe any more information than you’re comfortable giving in order to receive support.
Also, if you have severe social anxiety like me, you can do all of this over email if that’s what you want. I connected that way with my school social worker for months. Once I got comfortable emailing back and forth with her for so long, I finally agreed to meet her in person. I even asked her to meet me outside of the guidance room (there are so many offices in there and I didn’t want to knock on the wrong door) and she did! Again, you are in charge, communicate in whatever way works best for you.
Another reason a school social worker is best if you have one is that they usually have other resources to offer you. I said no to any external resources because it was stepping out of my comfort zone at the time, but there are more free mental health resources for teens than they tell us! From my understanding, unless you need a ride there, you are set to go by yourself. My social worker even offered to call in advance to make me feel more comfortable with going. I still didn’t go because of my anxiety, so that is the extent of my knowledge there, but I do know that school social workers have great connections to many free, accessible, confidential resources.
If you have a family doctor and live somewhere where there is free healthcare (I don’t know if you guys have to pay for general visits), they keep confidentiality from other family members as well. My social worker told me about that because some of my anxiety issues are physical rather than mental, making them only treatable with medication. I tell you this because social workers offer CBT based support and for disorders like that, they can’t fully help. Whether or not you have a disorder that requires medication, doctors can also offer you mental health resources without your family knowing.
For my trans friends, my gender therapist (recommended by my family doctor, if you need one) also sent me a bunch of different mental health resources. Mine had a connection with a social worker that I am able to see for free, with confidentiality rules that actually allow me to discuss thoughts of self-harm privately (make sure to ask about that if you connect with one though). Research different gender clinics/centers in your general area and see what they offer!
As a mentally ill high school student, we are told too often to just ask for help, and not told enough what will happen once we do. I hope this article eased your mind a little. Opening up about your mental health is not a death sentence, although it tends to feel that way. If you don’t want your parents involved, they don’t have to be. If you don’t want to get completely vulnerable right away, start small. You just need to learn what supports and resources are available to you, and use them in the most beneficial way for you.
You don’t have to do this on your own, there are options.
TW: Self-Harm, Body Image
I used to love swimming. It was a large part of my childhood- the early morning swims that my family would do on holiday, going to the beach with my friends and going to the local pool on weekends. I think my favourite part of it all was the silence, that unnatural calm that you get when you are underwater- the feeling that nothing and no one can touch you in that moment, away from all the noise above the surface.
I didn’t realise how much I yearned for it until it was gone.
My dad asked me today if I wanted to go to the pool with him tomorrow, just the two of us. He is rarely home and the thought of us sharing that moment, just like when I was a kid, filled me with hope and comfort. It was only until I was sitting in the shower hours later that I realised I had failed to consider two important factors.
Somehow I managed to lapse, just for a moment, back to three years ago. A time before I started to self-harm, before my body was the first thing on my mind in the morning. And yet, that reality of the things, the person that I had lost, swept me away in a tidal wave. It occurred to me how much I was missing, the empty hole I was trying to fill by turning on myself.
I really hope that in a couple of months time, I will look back on this article after my first trip back in the water. I hope things will be different. Because right now, I will be honest:
I am so tired.
It is not easy being this way, watching the things you love escape out of your reach. But the important thing that I try to keep reminding myself is that I’m trying. It might not mean much but I am, and I hope you will too.
I have been struggling with self harm for almost 4 years now, and that is not easy to come back from. But we must all find a way, in whatever steps we take, that are towards a brighter future for ourselves.
We must find something to fight for.
I fight for the silence. For the water. For the person I left behind beneath the surface.
Have faith in yourself, receive the love you deserve.