Feb 27, 2020
Imagine being asked to give up the most effective strategy you have for coping with stressful situations... this is often what it can feel like to people trying to give up self-harm.
In this episode, Dr Lucy Maddox talks to Jane, who first used self-harm when she was 14, and Dr Lucy Taylor, who works with young people to try to overcome self-harm.
This episode contains discussion about self-harm and reference to suicide.
Show Notes and Transcript
Cutting Down by Lucy Taylor, Mima Simic, & Ulrike Schmidt
www.cbtregister.uk for a list of BABCP accredited therapists
https://youngminds.org.uk/ for resources for parents and children about self harm
https://www.minded.org.uk/ for resources on child and adolescent mental health and development
www.babcp.com for more CBT resources
You can also listen to our podcast on Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, or DBT, for more on a different approach to self harming.
Lucy: Hi, and welcome to let's talk about CBT, with me, Dr Lucy Maddox. This podcast, brought to you by the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies or BABCP, is all about CBT. What it is, what it's not, and how it can be useful. Today, we're focusing on CBT for self-harm.
We obviously talk a lot about self-harm and we also mention suicide, so please look after yourselves and if you know that's something that's especially hard for you to listen to, then maybe just skip this one.
Jane: I think self-harm is something that is a way to control your feelings. It was a way for me to feel something and know why I was feeling it, and know that I was doing it, and know that I could understand it.
Lucy: That was Jane, who we're going to hear more from in a bit. For this episode, I also went to speak to Dr Lucy Taylor, a clinical psychologist, who has worked for 20 years in the NHS, mostly with children and young people. And who now works in private practice in Surrey.
Lucy T: My main interests are self-harm and cognitive behavioural therapy and how to engage young people that might be struggling a little bit to come to therapy.
Lucy: Could you say a little bit about what self-harm is?
Lucy T: Yeah, I think generally, the way we think about self-harm is on a dimension, and when we look at the literature and we look at the studies on self-harm, we talk about causing deliberate harm to your body. And that might be through cutting yourself or burning yourself or taking an overdose. But when we're talking about the dimension, it might mean also maybe drinking a little bit too much alcohol or not eating nutritionally rich food or restricting your diet.
So, it can mean lots of different things, but when we're talking about it within the clinic, it's a deliberate act of hurting yourself. And sometimes that can mean you want to die, and often that isn't because you want to die, but it is a way of coping.
Lucy: So, it sounds like a bit of a spectrum of experience, actually.
Lucy T: Yes. And I think when people come to the clinic, it's starting to cause problems. So, it might be that we all occasionally do things that actually aren't great for us, but it doesn't necessarily cause a problem in our everyday lives.
When it's becoming more it's affecting functioning or it's starting to affect relationships, or work or jobs or school, or when people are concerned about others, that's usually when they come to the clinic.
Lucy: For Jane, self-harm was first around for her when she was a teenager. But she didn't actually get help until her early 20s.
Jane: My name is Jane, I self-harmed from the age of 14.
People spoke about it openly.
Lucy: Like in your class, you mean?
Jane: Just in general, but it was still very looked down upon. I remember being in school, and I had these colourful bits of material over my arms, because I had cut myself. And because they weren't uniform, the teacher made me stand up in front of the class and take them off.
Lucy: That's so grim.
Jane: Yeah, (laughs) I don't think she knew, I don't think that's intent. But that's another thing, had it been talked about the way it is now, that would have probably been the first thing that came to her head, maybe it's that. It doesn't mean that it is, maybe I'm just being defiant and want to wear my rainbow armbands, but I don't think she was aware.
But then, even then, there was no conversation with a counsellor, they told my mum, that was it, but my mum already knew.
Lucy: It's disappointing, though, isn't it? I don’t know, it makes me feel sad to think of you as a young girl, not getting help at that point.
Jane: Yeah, but it was just something that I think a lot of kids of did, and a lot of people that I knew did it for different reasons, in different ways.
Lucy: I spoke to Lucy Taylor about the prevalence of self-harm in young people.
Lucy T: I think recent statistics suggest that at least one in 10 young people self-harm at some point. And I suspect it's probably more than that, but that's what we know about.
Lucy: That's an awful lot, actually, isn't it?
Lucy T: Yeah, it is, and I think it's a growing problem. And I think part of the problem is that when you talk to somebody, self-harm is often a very effective way in the short-term of managing a very difficult feeling. It can feel like the emotions which can feel very muddled up and complicated and overwhelming, that actually using the physical act of hurting yourself can reduce that in the short-term.
I think through CBT and through exploration, what people find is that actually, there are more longer-term difficulties that get associated with it, and it's not helping them to move forwards in their life and to manage those emotions. So, part of the initial stages would be figuring out what the pros and cons might be of self-harm.
Lucy: I guess they might be different in the long-term and in the short-term.
Lucy T: Absolutely, yes. And also, different situations might have different triggers, might have different functions for the young person. It's really getting them to be very good at taking a step back and recognising what they're doing, rather than just launching straight into it. So, giving them a little bit of a choice point.
Often, people aren't brilliant or don't have great skills in managing difficult emotions. So, part of CBT would be to help introduce and offer them skills and strategies to test out, to deal with emotions in a maybe less harmful way.
Lucy: For Jane, it was a bit later on in her early 20s that she found herself suddenly struggling again.
Jane: I didn't really see any big issues within myself until I was about 20 and I started having panic attacks. I had just moved to London from Scotland, and my gran had passed away, and I think a lot just happened that I didn't necessarily deal with. But it took about a year for them to realise that it was anything anxiety-based.
I was given medication for an ear infection, because I told them I was dizzy. I was put on heart monitors. I was given an MRI.
And then, eventually, I did my research, and went to the doctor and said, "Look, I don't feel like I'm having panic attacks, because I can breathe, but from what I've read, that might be what's happening to me." So, they put me in the local CBT programme.
I was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder, which is that you live in a panic attack, it never ends, you wake up and you panic because you're panicking. But you don't know that you're panicking, and you just go like that from day to day to day. And it is exhausting.
Lucy: That's a really long wait to be living in a panic attack. That's a beautiful description of it.
And so, it was anxiety that had brought you to the CBT pathway. But then, you were talking about self-harm in that therapy as well, is that right?
Jane: Absolutely. I think everybody has different kinds of panic attacks, but mine were all-consuming, all the time.
And I think self-harm is something that is a way to control your feelings. And so, it's very, very easy to slip into, I had stopped for years. And then, when that all happened, I just slipped right back into it. Because it was a way for me to feel something and know why I was feeling it, and know that I was doing it, and know that I could understand it.
I think the good thing about CBT is they let you come to your own conclusions. They're more trying to get you to understand your feelings and find a way to break a cycle. And to disassociate the feelings of panic and anxiety and sadness and depression and self-harm and all those things… Especially with self-harm, you do relate it to feeling good, no part of it is good, but at the time it makes you feel good, which is awful, but when you're desperate…
Lucy: Really understandable though as well. There's a reason for doing it, isn't there?
Lucy: Lucy agreed the reasons for self-harm are very individualised.
Lucy T: There's numerous different reasons why people might self-harm. What people have said in the past is sometimes it's a way of managing difficult emotions. Sometimes it's a result of having had quite a difficult traumatic time in the past. Sometimes it might be about feeling nothing, feeling numb and wanting to feel something.
And I think it's really important to understand and help the young person to think through why they might be self-harming.
So, part of the initial stages of CBT would be thinking with maybe some education around why other people self-harm. Normalising self-harm, not that it's acceptable and a great way of coping, but actually there's a lot of people out there who are self-harming.
Lucy: And what sort of thing happens in the clinic? What does cognitive behavioural therapy for self-harm look like?
Lucy T: Well, generally, I would be very interested first of all in whether the young person, as I mostly work with young people, whether the person is wanting to come or feeling that they are being slightly pushed into coming through a caring adult often.
So, at first, it would be just getting a sense of why the person feels that they're here. Getting to know them, hopefully creating an atmosphere that's safe and confidential.
And then, thinking with them about what they might want to be different in their lives. We would work together to meet a young person or a person's goals. So, that might be that they come in and they're clear that they want to stop self-harming. Or that they come in and they want to feel better and to feel happier or manage situations differently.
So, the first session would be about exploring what's brought them here. If it is a bit of a case of they are mixed about being here or someone's brought them here then we would spend some time thinking about motivation.
It's important when you're coming to CBT that you feel you want to make that change, even if it's a very small part of you that wants to make that change. And then, think through, particularly with self-harm, what the triggers are for self-harm.
Lucy: I asked Jane about whether she had been motivated to tackle self-harm or whether she'd wanted that to be left alone.
Jane: I think at first, because my panic attacks were I couldn't go outside, I couldn't take the bin out, I couldn't go to the shop. I'm a girl in my 20s and I've just moved to London and I can't go out with my friends. My mum has to take me places.
I just felt extremely dizzy, I thought I was going to faint all the time. I thought I was going to be sick, I thought I was dying. I had really bad intrusive thoughts, so I would be like, “What if I go outside and what if I'm crossing a road and what if a bus hits me?” And I would see the bus hitting me, so I just didn't. And then, as soon as you start not going outside, it's very, very easy to get stuck. Really easy.
So, I think initially it was definitely more for that. But that's again the good thing about CBT, is they connect the dots, well they let you connect the dots. And you're able to see that your feelings and emotions especially with self-harm never really go away. And it's more about controlling them, which was really, really important, I think for me, anyway.
Lucy: Here's Lucy talking me through the idea of maintaining factors, things that inadvertently keep a problem going and how she tends to formulate self-harm with young people that she works with.
Lucy T: The other thing that we know can happen with self-harm is that it tends to be maintained, it tends to keep going when there are other problems going on. So, for example, if someone's very low in mood or depressed, or they're anxious or they have anger problems or relationship problems, CBT focuses on the things that might be maintaining the self-harm for that person.
And we talk in CBT language about formulation, which is a full understanding of the person themselves. So, why are they in this position at this point in time? So, what early experiences might have led to that? What are their beliefs about the world and themselves and others? What might have triggered this episode or the use of self-harm? And what keeps it going? And so, a full understanding of the person, to be able to then start saying, “What do we need to do?”
Lucy: That's really hard to do if you're stressed about something, actually, isn't it?
Lucy T: Yeah. So, what we know about CBT is that for all of us, the way we interact with the world is influenced by our thoughts and our thoughts influence our feelings and our feelings influence how we behave. And they all work on each other, so the thought/feeling/behaviour link is really important in CBT.
What you're doing in CBT is highlighting where these beliefs and thoughts are and what they might be. And having a look at them and checking them for how real they are, testing them out. Is it just a habit that somebody tends to think like that because of stuff that happened a long time ago? And giving them ways and tools to challenge or let go of some of these unhelpful thoughts.
Let's say somebody feels very anxious about social situations and tends to avoid social situations. And then, when they get home, they might feel very ashamed or self-critical about that, and that might lead to self-harm.
So, one of the behaviours you might work on if that's your formulation, that's your understanding is how to manage those anxious situations. So that you can instead of avoiding, you can start to learn ways to manage those situations.
So, the behaviour might be what we call exposure, so starting with something that is easy-ish to do, and then moving up towards things that are harder.
What we know about anxiety for example is that if you avoid, your brain starts to develop a link that actually it's dangerous and you can't do it. So, by exposure therapy, which is facing the fear in a staged way, you're unlearning that, so the anxiety doesn't stop you doing things. So, that would be an example of a behaviour.
Lucy: Now, Lucy wasn't Jane's therapist, but Jane had this type of exposure as part of her treatment for anxiety, too.
Jane: I was given really little tasks, and even the routine of ‘I have to leave the house once a week’ was so helpful. And my mum came with me the first couple of times, then she said, "Okay, next week get your mum to walk you halfway. And then, get her to leave you at the station, and then just come by yourself."
And as I did it more and more, I would have moments of oh my god, I’m outside, I'm just on my own, and it was still terrifying, but I was doing it.
I almost had to train myself to be a person again, see, this is the thing for me anyway, it was never me sitting with her and her going, "Well, what makes you feel good? Maybe do that instead."
Lucy: That'd be quite annoying, actually.
Jane: Yeah, because it's like obviously I would love to, but that's not how it works. But it was more her trying to get me to understand why I was thinking about self-harm in the first place, and before I even got to that, how to redirect my thought pattern. And then I obviously had to decide something I would do instead. And you do replace it, I went through a stage where every time I thought about self-harming, I would go make a cup of tea.
But I was like well, it's five minutes where I'm going to go and do something for myself, I'm going to stand there, I'm going to drink my tea, and then see how I feel. And it worked. Not forever, but it's just having little things to do before. Because once you're in that mindset, nothing is changing, nothing is going to change your mind. There's full intention to do it, yeah, because like I say, once you're set on doing it, you can't get it out of your head and until you do it, it's not going to go away, for me anyway.
Lucy: So, CBT offers quite a few different strategies to help with some of the different things that can keep self-harm around or can trigger it.
If someone's feeling low and finding it hard to work out how to get out of certain dilemmas, then problem solving skills or concentrating on doing small things that make them feel better might be helpful. If someone's feeling anxious, like Jane described, then gradually testing out feared beliefs might help.
Having some alternatives to self-harm is also really important, we all have coping strategies we use to manage big feelings. Some of them more or less helpful than others. Retail therapy, a glass of wine, having a shout, imagine if someone just told you that you had to stop using whatever your coping strategy for stressful situations is and offered you nothing to use in return.
Lucy had lots of ideas or alternatives to self-harm. Again, different ones work for different people.
Lucy T: Something that's really important is to recognise when that emotion is going up and have some strategies and skills to bring it down, so that the part of our brain that we want to engage which is our thinking brain can be re-activated, which goes offline if you like when we're feeling overstressed.
The other thing that comes up with self-harm is that self-harm can often be triggered by social situations, so that might be an argument with a friend, an argument with Mum, feeling left out, for example. So, we know that social situations can trigger self-harm.
And some of the problems that people face is being able to get their needs met effectively with other people. So, some people might resort to being quite aggressive and angry and pushing people away, whereas others might be a bit more passive and just hold it in themselves.
So, one of the things that we think is really important is teaching the skill of being assertive, so being able to – without being aggressive – get your needs met, or say no to somebody or problem solve a situation where you've fallen out with someone.
So, we might focus on someone's social network and thinking about who's supportive, who's not supportive, how do you deal with situations that are difficult? How do you deal with arguments? Are there other ways you could manage that difficult feeling, like being assertive? And not just punishing yourself or hurting yourself because you're feeling it.
Another example of an alternative to self-harm is if a young person or a person is saying that they feel particularly angry, and self-harm manages that anger.
You might think with them about other ways, what could they do which would manage that anger, might that be writing down their thoughts and ripping it up? Or setting fire to a piece of paper with their thoughts on it? Or punching a pillow? Or screaming in the back garden? Something that feels like it might be a way to deal with their anger behaviourally to see whether there's other ways of dealing with that that don't hurt yourself.
Some people, if they feel that for example the sight of blood is soothing, then some people feel that if they draw red or they draw red on their arm, that that might be a way of recreating that sensation without again hurting yourself.
The other thing is we know that self-harm is hurting our bodies. One of the strategies that we think about is having a little bit more self-compassion, and thinking about looking after yourself a bit more, which may be difficult for some people because of what's happened to them or because they've never learnt how to do that. So, helping them to learn to self-soothe, and that might be instead of cutting, rubbing cream into your arm. Or it might be making sure that you're increasing the pleasure and fun things in your day, so that you're feeling a little bit happier about yourself and looking after that side of things.
Lucy: Earlier on, we heard about the thought/behaviour/feeling link. Sometimes the thoughts that we have are related to experiences we've had back in our past, or more recent experiences.
Lucy T: What we also know about thoughts is that how we interpret and think about events can be influenced by our previous experience, our beliefs, our personality. And sometimes in CBT you might go down that route with a person to understand where this might have come from.
Lucy: For Jane, grief over the loss of her gran was really important.
Jane: My gran dying was a massive thing for me. And I remember maybe my third session she said, "If your gran was here right now, what would you say?" And I was like, "I don't know." And she was like, "No, but if she's sitting here right now with us, would you tell her you miss her? Would you tell her…?" And I just started crying and I hadn't really cried about it. I had at the funeral, but I'd never really acknowledged that that was a part of it.
And I think something that I got from therapy was understanding that those thoughts are never going to go away. And when we talk about triggers, such a relevant statement, because anything can trigger you. And mine was a big life thing, but it doesn't have to be. I've been triggered by little things sometimes that have just sent me on a spiral. I've had big life events that I've actually dealt with really well and not really thought about. I think it's just something that's always there.
Lucy: Lucy told me about the evidence base for CBT.
Lucy T: Well, we've got a lot of evidence base with adults that CBT is more effective than nothing or other treatments. However, we've got less data for adolescents but that is about really not having as many studies that we can look at.
What we do know is that a lot of these strategies that are used with adults that I've talked a bit about, like challenging thoughts, managing some of the maintaining factors, the depression or the anxiety that might be fuelling the self-harm, from studies that we've got, we know work well with adolescents. The problem is we haven't got lots and lots of studies at this stage. But I think we're hoping that that will come. But reviews of the literature suggest that it's a definitely worthwhile treatment to try and to give a go to. And the NICE recommendation is to use CBT for self-harm is a recommendation.
Lucy: That's the government guidelines for what works best?
Lucy T: Yes, so it stands for the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. There's a body of people who look at the evidence base that we've got and make suggestions to therapists and teams about what we should be aiming for, it's a guideline. But actually, it's quite encouraging that we know that we're not just making things up. And that actually, we're doing something that feels like it's supported.
Lucy: For Jane, it took time, but things changed radically.
Jane: When my 18 sessions ended, I was a lot better and I could go outside.
Lucy: Were you still using self-harm or had that stopped?
Jane: No, that had stopped. But then, after maybe about a month… So what I had done was I joined Open University, because it was something that I could do at home. I explained to them my situation and they said, "We have a class once a week, you don't have to come to it." But the first one I went to I went with my mum, and it was the first time that I openly told people that I had an issue.
I sat at a table with 15 other people who I didn't know and said, "My mum is here because I have really bad anxiety, and so she's just here to help me." And even saying that out loud, I was like, "Wow. I’m not embarrassed of it anymore and I'm not ashamed of it anymore." And that's why it's such a taboo subject because people are so, it's a weakness, and it is.
But talking about it is so difficult, but you just have to own it and be like, "This is a problem for me, and if you're going to judge me on it, then that's a shame for you." So, I did that, and then after I think three weeks I went on my own. Terrifying. I sweated the whole time. I think I went to pee like 95 times (laughs), but I did it. And so, the next time it was a little bit easier.
And then, I went back to therapy because I spiralled very, very quickly.
I think this is another thing is as soon as you start to feel better, you go too far. It's a slow, slow process. And when you try and fill your day with too much, you kind of forget and then it all hits you at once. So, I went back to therapy for another six weeks.
And then, that's when I applied to work in a little juice bar, and I got the job. And then, yeah, that was that. I started working, I was offered a managerial role. And I have stayed in management ever since. And it's hospitality, which is not easy when you're terrified of people.
But it's just funny, because people who know me now would never imagine that I'm someone who would be scared to speak to people.
Lucy: I asked Lucy if she had anything to add.
Lucy T: I think the relationship is very important, when you're working, it's very important that a person trusts you as a therapist. That you are non-judgemental, that you are open with what you're doing, and it really is a joined-up process. And that you're very clear from the beginning that it's their goals, within reason, if you don't think that their goals are helpful to them, then you might have that conversation.
But generally, they're steering where the therapy goes. And that's probably what I quite like about CBT is that you're working as a team. And you are coming with some expertise, if you like, as a therapist about what can work and what we know can work. But actually what you're doing is you're exploring that together.
Lucy: What about what Jane would say to people thinking about having CBT?
Jane: That you're not going to feel judged. That this person is genuinely trying to help you.
I do understand why people don't go to therapy. I think people imagine that you lie on a big black sofa and have someone with a clipboard sit there and ask you if your mum loved you. It's not like that. It's more like this. (Laughs) This is way closer than what I just described.
Lucy: So, just two people having a conversation?
Jane: It's just two people having a conversation. And you can say what you want, and you can not say what you want.
I think the main thing I would have liked to have known beforehand is that it was on me to give the therapist information. Because I almost was quite taken aback at first. Because I was like, "They keep asking me how I feel, and I feel like I'm here because I don't know how I feel." But they can't tell you how you feel, you have to do that on your own. But it's not this big scary thing.
Lucy: That's all for today, huge thanks to Dr Lucy Taylor and to Jane. And thanks so much for listening, thanks also to those of you who have left ratings and reviews on iTunes. It's super nice to hear your comments and see your ratings there. And I think it also helps others to find the podcast, so thanks.
There are links in the show notes for this episode if you want more resources about self-harm, including a web address for YoungMinds and for MindEd, if you're either a younger person yourself or worried about a young person you know.
If you liked this episode you might also be interested in the previous episode we did on DBT for self-harm.
We've got new podcasts planned on CBT for depression, bipolar disorder and perfectionism, so lots more coming soon. And if you have ideas of what you'd like us to cover, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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