15 Sep Addicted to Injury: Why People Self-Harm
Self-harm is found in both genders, in all age groups, in every social class and across ethnic divides. But why do people deliberately cause themselves injury? The question has more than one answer, but there are two myths that need to be addressed from the start: firstly, self-harm does not come from the same place as attempted suicide. Secondly, self-harm is not predominately a cry for attention – although self-harm is definitely worth paying attention to.
Whereas suicide is usually motivated by the desire to escape pain through the oblivion of death, self-harm is often a coping mechanism to enable the sufferer to go on living. How does this drastic action achieve this? There are several reasons, both physical and psychological and sometimes working in tandem. This is why it can be very difficult for people to stop self-harming by themselves.
In physical terms, the act of self-harm can become addictive. The body’s natural response to injury is to flood the system with endorphins, creating a pleasurable high. However, regular self-harm, just like regular drug-taking, causes the body to build up a tolerance. This can lead to a dangerous escalation whereby deeper cuts or bigger blows are needed to create the same feeling. Not all self-harm is physically addictive. It is often the case that self-injury is a means of avoiding feelings rather than producing them. Where an individual tends to feel emotions strongly and deeply while lacking the skills to express them verbally, they may resort to hurting themselves to release the pressure. Self-harm can also be a form of punishment, motivated by feelings of guilt and self-directed anger.
Many people who self-harm do so in secret, contradicting the popular idea that the behaviour is a form of attention-seeking or a ‘cry for help.’ Then again, there is a cultural element to some forms of self-injury and some sufferers may be open about displaying the wounds on their body. This in no way diminishes the severity of their problems but does illustrate the complexity of this condition.
For those who suffer in silence how can we, as partners, parents and siblings, recognise what is going on. Some common signs are:
- Wearing long sleeves, even when the weather is hot.
- Wanting to spend a lot of time alone.
- Leaving the room in a state of anger and returning on a ‘high.’
- Uncharacteristic clumsiness (as an explanation for injuries).
Supporting those who Self-Harm
If you believe someone you know is self-harming, choose a private moment to gently bring up the issue and treat it seriously. Suggest that the person seeks qualified help and support them in doing so. I have worked in self-harm for many years, and although recovery is manageable and requires a similar approach, the causation of self harm can range from seemingly minor situations up to very severe abusive situations.
Much like a substance addiction, the first step in changing this destructive pattern is to accept that there is a problem and make a firm decision to give it up. A suitably qualified therapist can help you, or a loved one, through this process.