We can’t be there in person to help and support you in a moment of crisis, but there are other options available to you if you can’t turn to someone you trust. By giving us your postcode (or one nearby to where you are right now) we can let you know about services in your area. Remember: this moment will pass; you won’t always feel the way you do right now.
If in doubt always call 999.
You can also sign up to Alumina, our online support for mental health and wellbeing here:
The short answer is ‘yes’.
But that’s not to say that it always happens, or that you don’t need any support when you’re self-harming, or that you just need to sit tight and wait for the urges to disappear with time. There are lots of ways that you can help the process along, because a lot of it is about what is going on in your brain.
So let’s think about the teenage brain.
When you're a teenager your brain undergoes an intense process of growth and development. There was a similarly busy time of brain growth in the first 3 years of your life, when your brain was going crazy learning and processing the world for the first time, and then it settled down for a few years, and now you’re a teenager, a second wave of rapid change hits you.
Now I'm not a neuroscientist so I'm going to use the work of other people to explain and simplify some very complicated processes (thanks UNICEF and the Youthscape Centre for Research). But let's think about the two of the biggest areas of the brain undergoing some reconfiguration. They are the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex.
Yep, that's some serious brain science we're getting into.
The first of these – the limbic system – is the first part of the brain that comes online when we’re tiny, and is sometimes called our ‘animal brain’. It’s where our feelings register. And it's why when we're young our feelings are so unfiltered – little kids have meltdowns in the supermarkets and five minutes later are giggling. They are all feeling.
So that part of our brains has been online for a while but when we're teenagers, thanks to hormones and a few other things, it gets flooded with huge new surges of emotion on a pretty regular basis. The highs get higher, the lows get lower.
But at the same time, that second key part of the brain we mentioned, the pre-frontal cortex, is also starting to come online.
This part tells us how to regulate and process emotions, enables us to plan, solve problems and exercise self-control. It rationalises. It tells you that even though you just stubbed your toe, you might not need to have a full blown tantrum about it. You have a feeling, and then the pre-frontal cortex helps you decide on the best response.
So when we're teenagers, we experience a lot of feelings more intensely than at other times in life, but our brains are also still working out how to connect up all these different parts – like the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex. So we have big feelings (not unrelated to the HUGE changes our bodies are going through) but it won’t be clear what to do with them. Those parts are still joining up. It’s why teenagers are famed for being moody, and for risk-taking behaviours.
So what does that mean for self-harm? Self-harming is a coping strategy, and it relates to all those intense feelings coming from our limbic system (and they might even relate to things that happened a long time ago) which are still connecting up to other parts of the brain. We’re still working out how to cope, how to manage those feelings, what works for us, and it can feel like it's suddenly harder to do that.
But we can actually help our brains out. There is something that helps us to develop and strengthen the pre-frontal cortex - and it's processing our feelings. Not shutting them down, not numbing them, but finding ways to express and communicate them. This can be really hard for a lot of us, especially if we've experienced really awful things, and have shut down our feelings in order to survive. But every time we find a way to process some of our feelings - even something small - we build up the neural path ways and teach our brain a different way.
So learning to talk about our feelings and struggles, or express them through art or music or writing, helps our brains learn how to manage to healthy ways. And every time we try an alternative response to harming, we lay new networks in our brain that paves a way forward.
It won’t always feel like it does now, our brains will settle down and the emotions will become less intense. But we don’t just have to sit and wait, we can help our brains grow towards a healthier future in the meantime.
It's the start of a new year. Some of us love a fresh start and a clean slate, and we can feel like we have a shot at it when a new year (let alone a new decade) starts. But maybe it feels for you as if nothing has really changed. You're stuck in the same place with the same problems.
But maybe this year could be a time to reach out from some help from new places.
If you've not tried out Alumina before, why not try it out in 2020?
Alumina groups run online in the evenings. You log in to a kind of chat room where we can't see or hear you but you can see and hear us - real, adult humans who are here to listen and support you. You can type in the chatbox or just sit and listen. Either way, people tell us it helps them to feel less alone. There are usually between 2 and 6 young young people in each session.
We talk about some big questions - why do we self-harm, why is it so addictive, will it always be something I do, who can I talk to, are there any alternatives that work - but we never tell you what to do. Alumina is a safe space, a non-judgemental space, and a place where you can think about what it might take for you to move towards recovery.
We'd love to give you some extra support, and help you to feel less alone. Why don't you have a go?
We have new groups starting up with week, but you can join them anytime in January. Just sign up here. (Don't worry, when you sign up you're not totally committing yourself to Alumina - it just means we can start an email conversation with you).
This week The Guardian reported that “British girls have finally made the global top table … for fear of failure.”
Every year a selection of the world’s 15 year olds are assessed by a program called PISA, and typically governments look to see how well their teenagers are doing in English, Maths and Science. But they also measure other things like purpose, happiness and levels of stress.
The major finding for us this time round? Britain’s 15 year old girls are terrified of failure. The only countries with more terrified 15 year old girls are Taipei, Macau, Singapore, and Brunei.
I wonder if you maybe know from experience what they’re talking about. Are you terrified of failure? Failing exams, or failing to meet someone else’s expectations?
There’s something normal and natural about fearing failure – no-one likes to fail. But when it starts to dominate our thinking, to overwhelm our wellbeing, then we run into problems.
This fear of failure can affect our mental health, massively. It can lead to anxiety (which can take many forms), it can contribute to depression, it can leave us reaching for harmful coping strategies (like self-harming) just to keep it under control.
So where does it come from (and why does it affect so many girls)?
There’s definitely something about our education system and all the testing that has a negative effect. And schools and families that want us to do well often try to scare us into working hard by telling us how badly things will go if we fail.
When the truth is that failure isn’t as bad as everyone makes out. Failing an exam. Disappointing someone. Getting something wrong. People come back from those experiences every day. And lots of them have a story to tell about how they’re a better person because of it.
Social media has a role to play as well, because mostly what it shows us is people who look successful. Which puts more pressure on us, because we know all the ways in which we don’t measure up.
Of course boys experience it too, but some research shows that boys are more likely to respond to the fear by withdrawing from work to protect their self-esteem, whereas girls keep working and stressing…
What can help us get over such a fear of failure? Well, as someone recovering from that same huge fear myself, let me share a few things that have helped me over the years.
1. Not following people on social media who make me feel rubbish about myself
It might be a celebrity, it might be vlogger, it might be someone from school. But if following them leaves you feeling rubbish about yourself, and feeling like you don’t measure up then you just don’t need that. Let them get on with their life while you get on with yours. Carve your own path. As Oscar Wilde famously said “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
2. Remembering that I’m not at school or college to pass exams, I’m here to learn stuff.
Yes, teachers and parents obsess over exam results. But the point of getting an education isn’t just to pass exams so you can either get out, or go somewhere else to take more exams. The whole point is that you are learning about the world, and yourself, and other people, and working out where you might fit in all of that – what you love and what you might like to do. There’s a bigger picture than exams (which can be taken again if need be).
3. Reminding myself that many things are true about me that have nothing to do with exam results.
I like making things. I can sing. I’m a good friend. I can cook dinner for people. I like learning new things. I’m a good listener. These things have nothing to do with how well or badly I did in my exams, and they are a huge part of who I am. My value as a human being, as a friend, as a part of humanity, is not defined by school success. What kind of list could you make of positive things that are true about you – things you like, the kind of person you are – which will be true regardless of exam results? Maybe those things are actually a lot more important.
Can you grow out of self-harm?
People talk about 'growing out of self-harm'. Does that really happen, and how do you know if it will happen to you?