Heather Pererva, INtern

Self-Harming Behaviors

What is self-harm? Many terms have been used to describe self-harm such as deliberate self-harm, self-injurious behavior, non-suicidal self-injury, and self-mutilation. Methods of self-harm behaviors are virtually endless; they include but are not limited to; pinching, pulling out hair, scratching, hitting and biting oneself, banging one’s body parts against a hard object or surface, punching, cutting, burning, self-strangulation, scalding the skin with water or cigarettes, overdosing, ingesting non-ingestible substances or objects, and jumping from heights.

Is anyone else going through this? If you or a loved one are relying on self-harm behaviors to cope with the struggles of daily life, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Self-harm is more prevalent than you think it is. In community settings, an estimated 13-39 percent of adolescents and between one and four percent of adults report engaging in self-harming behaviors and, globally, ten percent of adolescent’s self-report engaging in self-harm within the past year. Unfortunately, the myths surrounding self-harm contribute to a problematic cycle of shame, blame, and self-harm as a secretive behavior and can prevent individuals from seeking help which prolongs the cycle of self-harm behaviors.

Myths. There are many myths associated with self-harm behaviors that drive cultural stigmatization and negative attitudes. One of the most damaging myths is that self-harm is an attention seeking and manipulative behavior. Approximately half of general practitioners, teachers, parents, and specialized professionals see self-harm this way. To the contrary, self-harm is a serious behavior and should never be ignored.

Another myth is that every person who self-harms is suicidal and needs to be hospitalized. This is not true. If this is the reason you are not reaching out, rest assured, there treatments available that do not include expensive and lengthy inpatient hospitalizations.  

I don’t understand why someone would harm themselves. Self-punishment, self-criticism, barriers to communicating feelings, not wanting to burden others, protecting loved ones, and fears of being judged, violations of privacy, or facing rejecting or negative reactions from family and friends can prevent individuals from reaching out for help. The difficulty communicating emotions result in adopting self-harm to function as a coping mechanism where they avoided facing fears, potential rejections or difficult interpersonal interactions with others.

Self-harm behavior, itself, acts as a means of communication of distressful emotions to others. Emotional displays always incorporate the use of the body—smiling, crying, scowling, etc.—these are used to communicate to others an emotional state. Self-harm functions in much of the same way although perceived much differently from family and friends. Individuals who self-harm often perceive themselves as being ignored by others, not acknowledged, heard or listened to. Self-harm represents a way for the individual to communicate strong feelings that cannot be ignored by others.

Lastly, self-harm functions as a way of managing emotions. Individuals report self-harm can relieve distress, anger, frustrations, be used to stop or get rid of feelings, avoid distress, replace one type of pain (emotional) with another more manageable type of pain (physical), offer a distraction from distress, or to stimulate feelings. Regardless of how one thinks self-harm may help, self-harm is not a healthy way to cope with distress and there is help available. 

            Family Therapy is Strongly Encouraged. Any mental health treatment for self-harm behaviors can help you or your loved one learn and implement healthy coping strategies to replace self-harm behaviors. A special consideration should be made for engaging in family therapy. Self-harm may be looked at as an individual problem, but, in reality, it is a behavior that developed from consistent, patterned interactions between the individual and the world around them. Family therapy can help to increase connection between family members, helping to enable vulnerable and sensitive emotional communication and reduce perceived isolation. Emotional communication, emotional reciprocity, support, cohesiveness, and connection within the family are protective factors that can greatly increase treatment gains in the short and long-term. If you or a loved one engage in self-harm behaviors to manage distress, there is help available. Reach out to a mental health professional.  

I am currently a Master’s Intern from St. Cloud State University’s Marriage and Family Therapy program. I completed my Bachelor of Science in Community Psychology from St. Cloud State University. Prior to working with Lighthouse Counseling, I interned at a day treatment center where I worked with adolescents, helping to teach coping skills related to cognitive behavior, emotional regulation and anxiety management. 

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