Ever wonder what self harm is, and why we’re hearing so much about it these days?
Self-harm is a term referring to a wide range of behaviors that individuals engage in for the purpose of intentionally causing harm to themselves; most commonly, making cuts in on the inside of the arms or legs with a sharp blade, such as a razor (because of this, self harm is often simply referred to as “cutting.”) It might be hard to understand why anyone would want to intentionally hurt themselves, but research shows that some people may self harm and have no awareness of what they are doing, called “dissociation”. One things is for sure, at the root of it, is deep emotional pain. Nowadays, an estimated 1 in 10 people in their teens and early twenties use self-harm as a coping strategy to deal with stress and anxiety. Even more shocking, the ratio of female to male is 3:1, with girls being at far greater risk to engage this behaviour than boys. In Leonard Sax’s book Girls on the Edge (2010), Sax writes that if you find a boy who cuts himself, he will most likely be the outcast or the loner, but you will find girls who cut themselves among almost every school-going demographic, including the “popular girls,” the star students, and the athletes.
Self-harm works to provide rapid but temporary relief from distressing symptoms such as mounting anxiety, the numbing of feelings, racing thoughts, and rapidly fluctuating emotions. Because the brain is equipped to handle physical injury by releasing a flood of tranquilizing endorphins, a person engaging in self-harm will experience a calming sensation which provides rapid relief from both the physical and emotional pain. The secondary hit? An elevated mood and energizing effect, not unlike a hit of cocaine. The good girl has just found a way to settle her system and feel alive! In my therapy practice, I see many beautiful, high-achieving, athletic girls, who are kind to their friends, well-liked by teachers, and “perfect” by most parents’ standards—but they suffer incredible emotional pain or numbness. These “good girls” are the cutters of today. But the brain patterns of emotional avoidance get built up long before the first cut. These girls learn to push down their real feelings, often to protect those they love, they feel emotions more strongly than others [Refer to Blog: Super Feelers} or because they believe they cannot show flaws.
It’s important to understand that self-harm is not necessarily a prerequisite to suicide, but it is an indicator that the young person is struggling; they need empathy and support.
Advice to Parents, Teachers and Coaches:
If you know someone who is self-harming, you are undoubtedly worried about their safety. There is a lot of stigma around this behaviour, and you’ll want to help without making things worse. A word of advice: do not scold or shame the individual who has engaged in self harm. Instead, tell them you are simply concerned about them. Give them your ears and eyes, respond in a calm manner, and listen to what they have been holding in. You are not going to be able to fix the problem, but your loving presence, ability to listen without judgement, and validation of their feelings and struggles, is the best strategy, hands down. In our desire for our kids to be happy, we sometimes mistakenly send the message to our kids that we can’t handle them when they are mad, sad, or scared. If you can remain calm in the moment, you send the message that you can handle their big emotions and they will be more likely to share their pain with you. We want the teens whose lives we touch to know that we are a safe place for them to find relief.
If You Are Self Harming:
Self-harm may be your way of dealing with unpleasant feelings and difficult circumstances. Know that there is no shame in wanting to find relief from your emotional pain. The problem is that this coping strategy requires hurting yourself, and the instant relief can become a preoccupation. can become an addiction, and become more frequent and invasive with time –even addictive. I have seen many young people stop self-harming once they learn healthier ways to tolerate their big emotions. The truth is that we can learn to regulate our system through relationship, as well; we build the capacity to calm our body and mind by sharing our inner thoughts and feelings with others. Some people do find other ways to work through their pain on their own, through journaling, painting, writing poems, listening to music or spending time outside. What works for each person is unique to them, and may be stumbled upon by experimenting with different options. Self-harm can be an enticing behavior to the person who cuts but I have seen the resilience of many young people, who have walked away from this behavior and developed hundreds of other, healthierways to soothe their system. The first step is to break the silence. Ask for help.
Looking for resources? Call Alberta Health Link, dial 811, to speak to a nurse, 24/7 about the support options available in your community. You can also see your family doctor, talk to a trusted parent, teacher or friend, access your school Guidance Counsellor, or reach out to a therapist.