Sixteen year old Allison** has been cutting her arms for years. She has many scars that tell a story of self-hate and loathing due to past sexual abuse. She was violated as a young girl by her sister’s boyfriend. When she experiences intense emotions she feels she can’t tolerate, Allison** takes any object she can find–a razor blade, thumbtack, paperclip just to name a few–and slowly drags the object across her skin. She tell me that the intense emotional pain she was feeling is now drowned out by the immediate physical pain from the tearing of her skin. She feels in control now because she has the power to stop or intensify the physical pain. Allison** is not an anomaly. In fact, she is one in two million people who are actively self-harming also known as self-injury. March is self-injury awareness month. Keep reading for more information.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm is defined as the intentional injury against oneself due to an inability to effectively manage intense emotions. Physical injury can include the slicing, scraping and/or burning of one’s own skin, excessive pulling of hair, head-banging against a wall or hard object, breaking of bones and several other damaging acts aimed at hurting oneself. Although these behaviors are demonstrated by multiple demographics, the more common sufferers of self-injury tend to be adolescent females, victims of abuse and individuals with mood disorders and lacking skills in expression and emotional regulation. In the U.S., there are at least 2 million reported self-injury cases each year. Clinically, this type of behavior is called Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI).
The sight of blood, the stinging of pain, the sound of a skull hitting the wall is, for many, the only instant distraction from intense and often stressful emotions and situations. If the skills to process and reasonably handle a difficult situation are not instilled within an individual, the act of self-injury acts as an immediate silencer from the alarms screaming inside the brain that are associated with intense stress. In some cases, self-mutilation is an act of punishment, or even a way to snap out of emotional numbness associated with depression or other mental illnesses. Regardless of the reasoning behind coping with stressful stimulant, the relief is temporary and unfortunately, self-injury serves only to perpetuate the underlying trigger that caused it. Understanding the why helps bring understanding to self-injury awareness.
Many times, self-injury breeds and continues the cycle of negative feelings as an individual is painfully reminded of the wounds or bruising during the physical healing process. Shame, guilt and even reliving the initial stressor that led to the act only further buries them into sorrow, oftentimes creating a new trigger cycle and more suffering. Mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, trauma and other emotional challenges are at the root of the self-injury entanglement.
Myths around self-injury
Information from self-harmers reveal that there are several myths surrounding the subject. The idea that individuals do it for attention or are ‘suicidal’ are not always true. Reading into the voices of some of these sufferers helps to better understand their coping mechanism. In the end, the act of hurting oneself is a desperate attempt to express dark emotions through physical pain rather than endure the internal pain and emotional agony within.
Although this may be a common coping mechanism to handle stress for individuals with mental illness, it is not physically, mentally or spiritually healthy. The practice erodes the potential of circumstances improving, but thankfully there are ways to evolve the habit and replace with more effective cathartic ways of regulating stress and intense feelings. The first step in addressing any problem is to identify and name it as such.
Getting through self-injury
Mindfulness is an effective mental health tool in confronting the afflictions of the mind. There are several alternative mental road maps to take once that trigger is identified, and thankfully, many of them are within arm’s reach! Seeking support, be it confiding in friends, family or even a therapist can also provide relief and begin to teach methods that override the urges to self harm. Therapy can also help build other social skills such as confidence and trust, feelings of empowerment and self-control and the potential for the evolution of mental well-being. I am here to support you and welcome a 30-minute free consultation.
Allison** continues to struggle with effectively managing her emotional distress but she has made great progress. She hasn’t self-harmed in months which is a great achievement!! She uses less and less self-injury and has learned healthy coping skills to manage her intense emotions. We continue to see each other and I’ll continue to support her emotional growth.
**Client name changed to protect her identity
1-800-DON’T-CUT – More info on self-injury
*http://www.selfinjury.com – Referrals for therapists and tips for how to stop.
*1-800-273-TALK – A 24-hour crisis hotline if you’re about to self-harm or are in an emergency situation.
*To Write Love On Her Arms (http://www.TWLOHA.com) – A non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.
*1-800-SUICIDE – Hotline for people contemplating suicide.
*1-800-334-HELP – Self Injury Foundation’s 24-hour national crisis line.
*1-800-799-SAFE – Domestic violence hotline.
*1-877-332-7333 – Real Help For Teens’ help line.