Understanding the Practice of Self-Harm

Portrait of Pain: Understanding the Practice of Self-Harm

Turbulent emotions can lead to destructive behaviour when we don’t have the right tools to cope. For some, this can be hurting themselves in an attempt to deal with painful and overwhelming feelings. Self-harm is a clear indicator that professional support is needed to help manage emotional trauma.

When we are grappling with a powerful and complex emotion, we often struggle to figure out what to do with the energy that feeling generates. For those who have established, healthy coping mechanisms, it could mean going out for a run or walk outside, talking to a trusted confidante, or scheduling a therapy session. But for others who don’t have access to an outlet for this emotional burden, they may begin to inflict pain on themselves.

Self-harm occurs when an overwhelming emotion drives a person to cause any type of direct harm to themselves that is not suicidal in intent. This can include cutting, burning, hitting or branding the body, causing a non-lethal drug overdose, or even deliberately refusing to let injuries heal. Though self-harm should not be confused with a suicide attempt, it should be taken as a serious indicator of distress and potentially an underlying mental health disorder.

How Does Self-Harm Start?

Self-harm is triggered by overwhelming emotions, which can be associated with a recent traumatic event, the resurfacing of painful memories, or ongoing stress caused by relationships, school or work. The build-up of mental pressure caused by these feelings causes the person to seek release by inflicting pain, which can cause a temporary sense of relief. 

Unfortunately, this sense of relief is often short-lived as the cause of the emotional distress is not addressed. Many people who self-harm feel a sense of shame or guilt afterwards that compounds the negative feelings they are experiencing, and can perpetuate a cycle of self-harm.

Some Reasons Why People Self-Harm

People who have sought treatment for self-harm have given important insights into why they hurt themselves. These reasons include things like:

  • A need to punish themselves for something that has happened or what they are feeling
  • A sense of control
  • To express something they cannot put words to
  • To try and escape painful memories
  • To convert emotional pain into physical pain
  • To break out of feelings of numbness or disassociation
  • To make painful thoughts and feelings physically visible
  • To alleviate painful thoughts and feelings
  • To create a reason to take care of themselves physically

Uncovering the reasons behind why people self-harm, including the cause of the person’s emotional pain and the type of relief they are seeking, can aid in effectively treating this behaviour.

Myths About Self-Harm

Like many serious mental health conditions, self-harm is often wrongly portrayed in popular media, which can lead those who suffer from self-harm to feel judged or misunderstood if they do try to seek help. Understanding the reality of self-harm is critical in helping to best support others, or make the right decisions for yourself if you’re struggling with self-harm.  

Myth 1: People harm themselves just to get attention.

Most people who self-harm feel a sense of shame about their injuries, and will attempt to cover them up or fabricate a story to explain them. The most common physical sites of self-injury are on the wrists, hands, stomach and thighs, areas that can be masked by clothing or bandages without drawing a lot of attention. Self-harm isn’t a mark of pride, it’s a mark of hidden pain that is often concealed.

Myth 2: Only teenagers engage in self-harm. It’s just a phase.

Though self-harming behaviour does tend to start in the early teen years, it is also prevalent among college-aged students and can affect some adults. Though some will be able to break the cycle of self-harm, for others this can be a long-term struggle. 

Myth 3: People who self-harm actually enjoy it; they’re just masochists.

Self-harm is not linked to pleasure, but deep and unbearable emotional pain. Though self-harm itself is not a mental health condition, it commonly occurs with disorders like depression and anxiety, essentially functioning as an unhealthy coping mechanism. However, with treatment, those who self-harm can find a healthier, non-destructive outlet for stress and emotional pain.

Identifying Self-Harm

Since most people who self-harm will try to conceal their injuries or their actual cause, it can be difficult for loved ones to identify what is happening. The person may also be in denial about the harm they are inflicting upon themselves, and downplay their injuries.

Looking at the context surrounding what may potentially be self-harm can help offer a clearer picture of what is going on. This can be assessed by answering some questions like:

  • Do you see the person with fresh cuts, burns, or other injuries?
  • Does the person attempt to conceal their injuries, refuse to explain them, or offer questionable explanations for how they got them?
  • Does the person seem to have a negative relationship with their body?
  • Are they highly self-critical?
  • Are they feeling guilty or hopeless?
  • Do they seem to be emotionally unstable or unhappy?
  • Have they experienced a traumatic event, or are going through recent challenges?
  • Are they struggling with other disorders like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders?

If the answer to many of these questions is “yes,” it is possible that the person is struggling with self-harming behaviour.

Getting Help for Self-Harm

Because self-harm is a manifestation of deeper psychological pain, it is important to have a trusted, experienced professional to help explore what is going on behind the self-harm. Many people who self-harm also have co-occurring disorders, which are other mental health conditions that can exacerbate emotional distress and fuel self-harm behaviours. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a good starting point for understanding self-harm. CBT is used to analyse the root cause of negative feelings or behaviours and build healthy coping mechanisms. A therapist may also suggest certain wellness practices, such as yoga or meditation, to help relieve stress and rebuild a healthy relationship between the mind and body.

Healing Yourself at The Dawn

Healing Yourself at The Dawn

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand is operated by Western psychotherapists and accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International. The Dawn uses a comprehensive, holistic treatment method to treat mental health issues and addiction, and offers tailormade treatment plans that cater to each individual’s needs. Each client gains a deeper understanding of their symptoms, and learns skills to manage their condition. We specialise in diagnosing and treating co-occurring disorders, ensuring that all parts of a problem are understood and addressed. 

Our centre is conveniently located just outside the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, only a one-hour flight from the country’s capital of Bangkok. At our serene riverfront property you are completely removed from your triggers and immersed in a safe and soothing environment. With our client numbers capped at 25, you’ll get highly personalised attention in a close-knit and welcoming environment.

Don’t let your pain consume you. Call The Dawn today to learn more about how we can help you cope and thrive.

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