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Understanding Self-Harm

teenage girl sitting on floor of darkened bedroom finally understanding self harm and the dangers

From a behavioral health standpoint, self-harm is defined as any intentional, direct injuring of body tissue without suicidal intent. The most common form of self-harm is cutting. Still, any action that purposely causes physical harm to oneself can be considered self-harm, including but not limited to: burning, hitting, punching, picking at skin, hair pulling, and ingesting poisonous substances. A professional depression treatment program is often the best first step in addressing the underlying causes of self-harm, especially in teens and adolescents.

Self-harm is often seen as a way to cope with difficult life circumstances or overwhelming emotions. It can be a way to express feelings that are difficult to put into words, or it can be a way to release pent-up anger, frustration, or pain. For some people, self-harm can even be a way to feel more in control of their lives when everything else feels out of control.

While self-harm may offer temporary relief from emotional pain, it is not a healthy or sustainable coping mechanism. Self-harm can lead to more severe physical and mental health problems and can even be fatal. If you or someone you know is self-harming, it is vital to get help from a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible.

What to Know About Self-Harm

What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm, also known as non-suicidal self-injury or NSSI, is not just one specific behavior. While many individuals cut, scratch, or otherwise break their skin and draw blood, self-harm can also be used to describe intentional self-inflicted head-banging, hitting, pinching, biting, burning, hair pulling, or anything else that causes intentional physical harm to yourself. These behaviors will vary in frequency and severity for every person, and some may engage in more than one self-harm behavior at a time or over time.

Is Self-Harm the Same as Attempting Suicide?

No. It is important to differentiate self-harm/NSSI from behaviors intended to end one’s life, also known as suicide attempts. All behaviors are performed by humans for a specific purpose, although in some cases, something intended as NSSI can be severe enough that the risk of death increases. Self-harm/NSSI behaviors are typically performed for a different purpose than ending one’s life. While someone engaging in self-harm can also be feeling suicidal and may at some point in the past have attempted suicide—or may make a future attempt—the terms are not synonymous.

Why Would Someone Engage in Self-Harm?

For most people, the reasons for self-harm are primarily related to coping mechanisms. Some people find that engaging in self-harm or NSSI behavior does one or more of the following:

  • Creates a physical “location” for emotional pain that makes them feel better
  • Helps them feel something when they have been feeling detached or “numb”
  • Helps them express frustration
  • Allows them to punish themselves for perceived wrongdoing
  • Serves as a way to exert control over their body

It is important to note that the person harming themselves may not know exactly why they do it. For many people, it becomes a habit over time and is something they use to manage their emotions. Some people have even described it as an “addiction” in that even when they don’t want to self-harm or are trying not to; they feel that they cannot stop themselves from engaging in these behaviors.

What to Know About Self-Harm, Coping Skills, and Helping Someone

Coping skills are a frequent topic and focus of therapy. It is helpful to think of coping skills as existing on a continuum from healthy, to neutral, to unhealthy. Many coping skills can be overused or underused and become more healthy or less healthy, depending on their usage. Self-harm is not a healthy or sustainable coping mechanism.

For example, treating oneself to two scoops of ice cream after a long hard day or when they are feeling down is a perfectly healthy, appropriate coping skill for most people. But, if you start eating ice cream every day or eat ten scoops of ice cream at the end of the day, this coping skill may quickly become less healthy or even dangerously unhealthy. Coping skills are highly individualized. This means that what will be healthy, neutral, or unhealthy for you may be entirely different for someone else.

How Do You Help Someone Engaging in Self-Harm?

Because self-harm is often a symptom of an underlying issue and is often a harmful coping skill that can escalate to more dangerous behaviors over time if left unaddressed, getting professional help is strongly recommended. Connections Wellness Group offers treatment options for those struggling with self-harm.

Whether you engage in individual therapy or higher level of care such as our intensive outpatient program (IOP) or partial hospitalization program (PHP), having someone to talk to who can help you determine why you are engaging in self-harm as a coping skill, work through underlying issues, and learn alternative coping skills is the safest and typically most helpful treatment.

Contact Connections Wellness Group Today

Because the reasons behind self-harm behaviors are so varied and coping skills work best when they are individualized, having professional support to explore an individualized treatment plan is often a crucial part of moving forward and ceasing harmful behaviors.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with self-harm/NSSI, please call 940.360.4245 or contact us online.

Contributing Author: Nancy Bledsoe-Link, MA, LPC, LCDC