When I feel anxious, I scratch myself to the point of bleeding, then I end up with ugly scars that make me look like I’m suicidal or something. It’s very embarrassing and then I have to try to keep my arms hidden all the time so other people don’t look at me weird. That gets hard to do with a short sleeve work uniform. I’m getting desperate about trying to break this bad habit. I have a lot of anxiety, but I don’t hate myself or anything and I’m really not suicidal, so I don’t understand why I keep doing this to myself. It’s very upsetting. Do you have any suggestions?
These kinds of behaviors always have a logical reason driving them. The first thing to figure out is which element of your being (mind, body or soul) is pushing for the behavior. When the body is the driving element, it’s usually trying to vent stress that it’s picking up from an anxious soul or mind. Because the body wants to avoid pain, its versions of nervous behaviors will usually avoid doing any physical harm. Jiggling legs, wringing hands, tapping fingers, squirming in a chair–these are common examples of harmless fidgety behaviors that the body can trigger in order to relieve stress.
Now since your scratching keeps crossing over into causing injury, it’s quite unlikely that this is being triggered by the body. Even though it appears on the outside that your body is harming itself voluntarily, it’s more likely that the body is feeling coerced by a stronger element into harming itself. This is a very common situation, and the stronger element in these cases is either the soul or the subconscious part of the mind.
In cases of soul driven self-harming, there are usually accompanying feelings of shame or some other self-derogatory thought. There is also often a sense that you’re trying to inflict pain on yourself as a means of punishing yourself. Also, when the soul is involved, you are usually more consciously aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is because your soul has a different relationship dynamic with your conscious than your subconscious does. To put it simply, your subconscious is able to keep a lot more secrets from your conscious than your soul can. Your subconscious can also interfere more directly with your conscious’ ability to function.
Now the fact that you don’t seem to be associating these scratching sessions with a bunch of negative self-talk, combined with the fact that you don’t feel you have any conscious awareness of why you keep doing this indicates that it is your subconscious that is pushing for this behavior to occur.
The fact that you say you have “a lot of anxiety” indicates that your subconscious is already running in a constant state of high stress. That means its available resources are very tight, because it takes a lot of extra effort for your subconscious to stay on top of all the things it needs to do while also trying to cope with a bunch of unresolved stress.
Your subconscious operates like a kind of “mama bear” over the rest of your elements. It is very protective over your body and conscious, both of which are much more fragile than your subconscious is. The conscious part of your mind is especially fragile and easily overwhelmed by stress. This is the part of your mind that allows you to focus on tasks, carry on conversations, and think clearly about problems you need to solve. If you’re going to function well in the workplace, it’s vital that your conscious remain functional, and that means it needs to be protected from getting too stressed.
Now because your conscious feels very dependent on your subconscious, it quickly becomes upset whenever it senses that your subconscious is upset. You could think of your conscious like a little girl who naturally becomes very stressed when she senses that her mother is very upset about something. A good mother will want to avoid having her child share her distress, because the kinds of things mothers worry about are usually things that children would find overwhelming. So what can a stressed out mother do to protect her child from imitating her anxiety? Giving the child some kind of distraction could be a useful strategy here. If the child gets busy watching television or playing with some kind of toy, she’ll temporarily forget about monitoring her mother’s emotional state.
Subconscious minds will sometimes use this same kind of strategy to calm their conscious dependents. There are many kinds of distractions that minds come up with in these cases, and some of those involve the kind of behavior you’re dealing with. By pushing you to start scratching yourself, your subconscious is likely trying to create a distraction that will hold the attention of both your body and your conscious. Once the scratching reaches painful levels, notice how your focus shifts off of whatever you were worrying about and onto your burning skin. By creating a small crisis for your conscious and body to focus on, your subconscious is trying to get them to stop focusing on its own anxiety. While this appears to be a very negative activity due to the injury being caused, it is actually motivated by a positive desire to protect your more fragile elements.
Understanding root causes is essential to pinpointing a useful solution. If this is a case of your subconscious trying to create a distraction, then a good strategy for you to try would be presenting your mind with some better options. What’s needed here is some kind of problem solving activity that can hold the attention of the conscious while requiring the physical involvement of the body. Remember that the goal is to keep both of these elements distracted at the same time.
I’d recommend that you hop onto Amazon and search for “fidget toys.” These are typically handheld objects that are designed to bend and twist in a variety of ways. They are usually made pretty tough so that they can take a lot of abuse, and many are designed to be easy to carry around in a pocket or purse. In your case, it will be important to get something small enough that you can have it with you at all times for instant access whenever you start feeling anxious or an urge to scratch. But the most effective toys for you will likely be ones that have a strong puzzle solving element. A simple squeeze ball isn’t going to create the kind of attention holding crisis that bleeding arms do. To encourage your subconscious to accept a substitute activity, you need to try to match its agenda as closely as possible, and that means coming up with a problem that isn’t easily solved.
If you search for “metal puzzles” on Amazon, you’ll find some very small “brain teaser” puzzles which typically involve two pieces of twisted metal wires being looped together in a way that is ridiculously hard to undo. At first glance, it looks like they will be simple to pull apart, rather like two paperclips that have been looped together. But there is usually a non-obvious trick to it, where you have to position the two pieces just right before they will separate. The advantage here is that these puzzles are very small, they come in variety packs, and the fact that they look easy to solve makes them enticing to your conscious. The fact that they are so small and require a lot of finger coordination to fiddle with makes them very useful for distracting your body. And the fact that they are harmless little puzzles means you can fiddle as long as you want without causing harm to yourself. Here is a product image from one of these puzzle packs:
Now if you try this kind of thing and you turn out to be so good at it that the distraction doesn’t last, I’d recommend stepping up to a more difficult handheld “brainteaser.” There’s always the classic Rubix cube: a puzzle which most of us find incredibly aggravating and impossible to solve. First you twist the cube about to mix up the colored tiles, then you do a lot more twisting to get each side of the cube back to a solid color again. It’s much harder than it sounds.
These come in a variety of sizes and shapes, including mini ones that will be easy to carry with you. I looked up instructions once on how to solve one of these suckers and ended up with twenty sheets of steps, so one of these should last you a good long while.
Another good on-the-go option is the classic bead maze. This is a flat plastic puzzle with a small bead that rattles about in a difficult maze. You have to try to move the bead through the maze by tipping and tilting the thing. Once again, it looks a lot easier than it is.
There are many other kinds of puzzles that are around the same size as the bead maze. Some have number tiles that you slide about until you get them in a certain order. Some have other kinds of maze type challenges. Since you have persistent anxiety, I’d recommend you get some larger puzzles for home and some small ones to take with you. Scatter the home ones around so that some form of puzzle is always within reach. Then try reaching for one whenever you feel the urge to scratch.
Now when shopping for these, take your time and wait to see which kinds of puzzles attract you personally. By getting puzzles which you personally like the look of, you increase your chances of getting a useful substitute. Because your subconscious is the element pushing for a distracting activity, that is the element you need to sign off on any substitute you come up with. Once your subconscious accepts a substitute idea, it will likely start pushing your conscious and body towards that new activity, and the scratching habit will get a lot easier to kick. But until you find something your subconscious likes, it will likely keep pushing for the scratching.
Regardless of what kind of “bad habit” you’re trying to change, there will be a logical reason for its existence. All behavioral habits are driven by specific elements of your being which are trying to strategically solve or put temporary patches on specific problems. By understanding which element is at work and what it is trying to accomplish, you’ll have a much better chance of getting it to accept a substitute activity.
Now while it would definitely be great to get your mind to settle for a less harmful distraction tool, there is the bigger issue of your subconscious lugging around so much anxiety. Persistent anxiety is a result of the mind (or soul) feeling very stressed by problems that it hasn’t found a solution to yet. Whatever those problems are, they are causing your mind to leap to some very fearful beliefs about you, your place in the world, and/or your chances of experiencing happiness in the future. Pinpointing what specific life events have triggered all of this anxiety would be a very helpful step forward. If you are ready to start working on that, I’d recommend you try the exercises in this post: Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs. Meanwhile, do some shopping and get yourself some distraction toys to try out the next time you start feeling uncomfortably stressed.
This post was written in response to Raquel.
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