Understanding Self-Harm

Oct 12, 2023 | Anxiety, Depression, Mental Breakdown, Mental Health, Self-Harm, Suicide

The act of harming oneself is a concerning behavior that is often challenging to comprehend for those who have never experienced the impulse to do it themselves. Contrary to what some believe, self-harm is not merely attention-seeking or a phase that someone will outgrow. Instead, it often indicates deep emotional pain that is being dealt with in an unhealthy way.   

In this blog, we delve into the deeply complex reasons why people engage in self-harming behaviors, and more importantly, explore ways in which we can offer support to those who are struggling.

Why Do People Engage in Self-Harm?

Self-harm is a coping mechanism that people use to manage overwhelming emotions and psychological pain. Although it may seem counterintuitive, self-inflicted physical pain serves as a distraction from emotional suffering. The act of self-harm can provide temporary relief, a perceived sense of control, and even a way to communicate their inner turmoil when words fail them. 

This is part of the reason why self-harm is so common in adolescents. At their young age, they are often unequipped to communicate their trauma or pain and may act it out through self-harming behaviors. This is frequently a cry for help. 

In conjunction with this, there are many other reasons why people might engage in self-harm, including:

  • An Emotional Release: People who self-harm often describe a sense of release when they engage in the behavior. Physical pain can temporarily override emotional distress, offering a brief reprieve from overwhelming feelings like sadness, anger, or anxiety.
  • Perceived Sense of Control: In an environment where they might feel helpless or out of control, self-harm can provide a way for people to regain a semblance of control over their own bodies and emotions.
  • Expression of Inner Pain: For some, self-harm becomes a way to communicate their internal struggles when words feel inadequate. It’s a tangible expression of the pain they are feeling, a cry for help that is often misunderstood.
  • A Coping Mechanism: When dealing with trauma, abuse, or other distressing experiences, self-harm can become a coping mechanism. It’s a way to manage overwhelming emotions and numb psychological pain.
  • Self-Punishment: Sadly, some people engage in self-harm as a form of self-punishment, believing they deserve to feel physical pain due to guilt, shame, or perceived inadequacies. This could be due to a variety of reasons, but some children will blame themselves for situations that they did not create. This could include sexual abuse or a parent’s divorce. 
  • Attention Seeking: While self-harm is not primarily about seeking attention for most people, it can sometimes serve as a desperate plea for help when other means of communication have failed.
  • Suicide Attempt: Some people self-harm as part of a suicide attempt. While not everyone who self-harms is actively suicidal, some people who self-harm can be at high risk for suicide. 
Types of Self-Harm

Self-harm is not limited to a single method or behavior; it encompasses a wide range of actions that people may engage in to cope with emotional pain. Below are some of the most common forms of self-harm:

  • Cutting: This is easily one of the most well-known forms of self-harm. It involves deliberately cutting the skin with sharp objects like razors. Self-harming individuals cut various parts of their body, often in areas that can be easily concealed like the arms.
  • Burning: Burning the skin with cigarettes or other hot objects is another disturbing form of self-harm. Burn marks could be present on the arms, legs, or other body parts that are not easily seen.
  • Scratching or Abrasions: Some people scratch their skin intensely to the point of bleeding or causing wounds. This can provide a similar sense of relief to cutting but without a tool to do so.
  • Hitting or Punching: Punching walls or hitting oneself with objects are physical ways some people express their emotional pain. We see this more commonly in young boys, though it is not exclusively done by them.
  • Hair Pulling: This self-harm act involves compulsively pulling out hair from the scalp or other parts of the body. It often occurs as a response to stress or anxiety and can sometimes be seen in people who do not actually intend to harm themselves but are experiencing a compulsion.
  • Head Banging: Some people may repeatedly hit their head against a surface, often a wall or furniture, to manage emotional pain or frustration. This is a far less common form of self-harm but does exist.
  • Ingesting Harmful Substances: Intentionally ingesting toxic substances or overdosing on medication is a form of self-harm that can quickly result in death. While this could be viewed as a suicide attempt, some people engage in this act of self-harm without the desire to end their lives.
  • Interference with Wound Healing: This act involves reopening existing wounds, preventing them from healing properly. It can be seen as a way to prolong the physical pain and maintain a focus on it, which offers control.
How to Help

Supporting someone who is struggling with self-harm requires empathy and a non-judgmental attitude. Although it can be hard to maintain frustration or sadness when dealing with a self-harming loved one, it is critical in order to best help them. 

For those suffering, they are already dealing with inner turmoil and blame that riddles them with guilt or anxiety. Showing frustration can push them further into their cycle of harm. Instead, research ways to positively impact them and guide them toward healing. Here are some actionable steps you can take to offer meaningful assistance:

  • Learn: Before offering help, take the time to thoroughly educate yourself about self-harm. Understand the motivations behind it and the possible underlying mental health issues. Knowledge will empower you to provide effective support without inadvertently making the situation worse.
  • Communication: Initiate a caring and non-confrontational conversation. Express your concern for their well-being and let them know you are there to listen and support them without judgment. Create a safe space for them to share their feelings.
  • Offer Alternatives: Help the person identify and develop healthier coping strategies. Physical exercise is one of the most powerful options as it improves both mental and physical health simultaneously. You can make it fun by adding in activities like pickleball or group sports.
  • Don’t Use Ultimatums: While it might be tempting to issue ultimatums like “stop self-harming or else,” this approach is almost never effective and might lead to further isolation. Instead, focus on understanding their feelings and helping them find healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Look Into Therapy: Gently encourage the person to seek help from a mental health professional. You can also offer to help them find resources and accompany them to appointments if they feel comfortable with you tagging along.
  • Be Patient: Recovery takes time, and setbacks are not uncommon. Be patient and continue offering your support even if progress is slow or a relapse occurs. Your unwavering presence will make a difference in their journey to healing.
  • Take Away Harmful Objects: If they are open to it, you can help by removing or securing objects that they might use for self-harm. This step is not about taking away their agency but rather creating a safer environment without temptation or easy access.
  • Model Healthy Behavior: Be a role model for healthy coping mechanisms and emotional expression by modeling it firsthand. Demonstrating healthy ways to handle stress and difficult emotions can positively influence their own coping strategies.

Understanding why someone engages in self-harming behaviors is not always easy but it is key to helping them overcome this behavior pattern. With this knowledge in hand, you can effectively intervene and direct your loved one on a path to recovery.

New Dimensions Can Help!

New Dimensions has outpatient counseling programs for adolescents and adults who are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.  To learn more about our services, including psychological testing, Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP), Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP), and interventions for substance abuse, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at www.nddtreatment.com.  To learn more about individual, family, and couples counseling visit www.mhthrive.com.