A couple of decades ago, I went out with a guy that would regularly self-harm.
When I first met him, I never thought he was the type of person that would cut himself. In fact, I only found out he was prone to self-harm after we’d argued and I caught him in the act. He tried to explain why he had to do it but I, like many others, found it difficult to understand.
I could see that there was some tension in his family. In particular, his father was a stern and domineering type who demanded perfection from his children. No one ever stood up to him, including his wife. It was obvious that his relationship with his father was fractious, so was this the reason behind his self-harming?
‘I’ve learnt that, as my emotional needs were not being met, I used self-harm because I didn’t know how to express myself or say what I needed or wanted.’
What is self-harm?
Like myself, many people associate self-harm with cutting. However, as the name suggests, self-harm is any intentional form of self-inflicted injury.
- Cutting or burning the skin
- Taking an overdose
- Poisoning using toxic substances
- Punching or hitting oneself
- Starving or binge-eating
- Misuse of alcohol or drugs
- Excessive exercising
First of all, self-harm is a reaction to a stressful situation. Subsequently, people self-harm for many reasons. These reasons often correlate with the age a person starts to self-harm.
It’s possible that self-harming behaviour can start as early as 4 years old. However, typically, you’ll find the highest of cases start around the teenage years. This is not to say that it can’t start at a later age.
The main reasons behind self-harming are:
- Relieve unbearable tension
- Express extreme distress
- A form of punishment
- A cry for help
Self-harm is much more nuanced than that, however. Before we explore these reasons, here are some descriptions of what self-harm allows people to do:
- Turn emotional pain into physical pain
- Express hard to describe emotions
- Regain control
- Reduce overwhelming emotions
- Turn feelings into something physical
- Feel something instead of being numb
- Distract themselves from traumatic memories
- Punish themselves
What are the reasons why people self-harm?
Here are 10 common psychological reasons why people self-harm:
A result of childhood sexual abuse
Unfortunately, it is not hard to see that a person who has suffered from childhood sexual abuse is at a higher risk of depression in adult life. But now recent studies are showing a strong link between serious and frequent abuse with self-destructive behaviour in adulthood.
Not only this, but many victims of childhood abuse are also threatened with violence should they reveal the truth. As a result, self-harming is a way of showing these horrific events without revealing what happened.
‘I hated my body and blamed it for what I’d been through, so felt it needed punishing.’
Victims of childhood sexual abuse are likely to grow up with extremely low self-esteem. They could even blame themselves for what happened. It’s likely that this sense of self-loathing could manifest in a physical way by self-harming.
Relief from unmanageable stress
‘Self-harm proved to me I was real, I was alive. At times it also silenced the chaos in my head.’
Research suggests that athletes striving for perfection, or students where expectations are particularly high are susceptible to self-harming. Because a person is unable to relieve their stress it builds up to an intolerable level. Consequently, the only way they can release this stress is to self-harm.
A way to express feelings
One theory about self-harmers is that they have grown up in an environment where communication was met with either ridicule or punishment.
I believe this is why the guy I went out with cut himself. He couldn’t talk to his father so he cut himself instead. Not only that, but he was also prone to binge-eating. No one spoke freely in his house. When I was there, I saw that everyone stood up when his father came home from work. The atmosphere was always on a knife edge.
A method of purification
Some self-harmers see the act of cutting as a way of ‘purging’ themselves. Bloodletting is particularly symbolic and seen as a purifying or cleansing act.
For some people, they feel their body has been stained or soiled by abuse. Therefore, cutting and bloodletting allow them to release the toxic pain or poison inside them.
Produce a feeling of euphoria
Pain produces our body’s natural endorphins. These are the opiate-like chemicals that make us feel good. Because of this, some people get addicted to this natural high and can get withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop.
Coping with bullying
The problem is that young adolescents don’t have the capabilities that we adults do to deal with this stress. Self-harming is a way that victims can release this anxiety. Evidence also shows that victims with neglectful or abusive family backgrounds are more likely to self-harm.
Confusion about sexuality
The LGBT community is subject to prejudice, exclusion (from their own families and society), and violence. They may feel a sense of shame about their sexuality. There are many studies that show LGB people are at a higher risk of self-harming behaviour than heterosexuals.
‘A part was also for attention, I was desperate for someone to notice me and help me.’
There are some theories that base self-harming on attention-seeking behaviour. Cutting or hurting oneself leads to increased attention; a hospital visit perhaps; family gatherings, or worried parents.
The self-harmer learns that by repeating the behaviour, the attention returns. It’s likely that those who missed out on parental attention growing up may seek it as adults by self-harming.
Relationship break-ups are hard on all of us. However, for those prone to depression and anxiety, it can be extremely distressing. There’s a sense of panic that comes with the end of a relationship. Certainly for some, self-harming relieves this anxiety.
Self-harm and how to stop
Self-harm is a reaction to a stressor. People use it to reduce anxiety or to cope with their emotions. The problem is that it becomes a compulsion. This makes it particularly difficult to stop. It’s important to tackle self-harm on two levels.
- Identify the stressor
- Stop the compulsive behaviour
5 Immediate ways to stop self-harm
Not everyone is ready to tackle the main problem behind self-harming. If that is the case, here are 5 ways to immediately stop self-harm in its tracks:
- Wait it out. Like panic attacks, the compulsion to self-harm will pass. Wait for 10 minutes and if you still feel as if you need to self-harm, go to the next steps.
- Talk to someone you trust. You don’t have to tell them about your self-harming. The simple act of speaking to another person stops the compulsion.
- Find other people. Above all, self-harming occurs in isolation. Being around other people is a natural barrier to hurting yourself.
- Draw on yourself. Instead of cutting, take a pen and draw where you feel the compulsion to cut. For some, this is enough to relieve the tension.
- Do something else. Anything else will do. Even boring things! The washing up, dying your hair, cleaning out your wardrobe, getting stuff ready for college. It is a distraction from self-harm.
Finally, if you have any suggestions to stop self-harming behaviour, we would love to hear from you.
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