Self-Harm: Reasons, Symptoms, and Treatment
Everyone needs a way to cope with their emotions when we face very difficult feelings, painful memories, or overwhelming situations. Hopefully, we find healthy coping skills, but sometimes, we turn towards more destructive methods to manage our feelings, such as substance abuse, promiscuity, overeating, or other damaging behaviors. For some people, when their emotions feel out of control, they turn to self-harm looking for a release. Self-harm or self-injury are any forms of hurting oneself on purpose.
Reasons People Self-Harm
Some people might self-harm as a way to:
- express something that is hard to put into words,
- turn invisible thoughts or feelings into something visible,
- change emotional pain into physical pain,
- develop a sense of control over their lives,
- distract themselves from negative feelings,
- escape traumatic memories,
- punish themselves for things they think they have done wrong,
- feel something physical if they are feeling numb or disconnected emotionally, or
- express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking their own life.
Types of Self-Harm
Self-harm can be anything someone does to purposely hurt their body, which can be a wide-ranging list. Here are some of the most common types of self-injury:
- Carving words or symbols into the skin
- Banging head against a hard surface
- Hitting oneself
- Piercing the skin with sharp objects such as hairpins
- Pulling out hair
- Picking at existing wounds to keep them from healing
Symptoms of Self-Harm
If you’re concerned that your teen is engaging in self-harm, you can look for these warning signs:
- Fresh cuts, burns, scratches, or bruises
- Rubbing an area excessively to create a burn
- Having sharp objects on hand
- Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
Note that this is not a comprehensive list, so you could observe other signs. Additionally, you should not assume your teen is self-harming if you see one warning sign. You would need to more than one wound combined with emotional distress, such as depression, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, feelings of worthlessness, or emotional instability.
How to Help Someone Who Is Self-Harming
If you suspect that your teen is self-harming, the most important thing to do is to seek professional help from a trained therapist, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Self-harm is serious, and while it rarely leads to death, it can still be dangerous physically and emotionally. Talking to someone who understands self-harm and who can offer support is incredibly valuable. Trained professionals can help a teen recognize and explore the feelings that lead them to want to hurt themselves. They can also help them identify alternative coping mechanisms that are healthier both mentally and physically. Self-harm is a very treatable condition with therapy, but hard to tackle on your own.
How to Prevent Self-Harm
We all have experiences that are painful, traumatic, or overwhelming. As a results, all of us need ways to cope with and process these strong emotions. If teens aren’t taught healthy ways to cope, they might turn to more destructive methods, such as self-harm. Every parent should discuss healthy coping mechanisms with their children before problems arise. Here are some ideas:
- Get creative. Studies show that making art can help people process emotions. For many people, the process of painting, doodling, taking photographs, sculpting, or creating a collage can be very calming.
- Exercise. Exercise can release endorphins. Encourage teens to get moving when stressed. This can mean throwing punches at a boxing bag or kickboxing class, taking a run, bike riding around the neighborhood, or even shooting hoops in the driveway.
- Meditate. Researchers have discovered that mindfulness, meditation and yoga relax people and improve moods. Encourage teens to try using an app like Calm or Headspace to try meditation.
- Breathe. When we are stressed, our body naturally takes faster, shallower breaths. By consciously taking slow, deep breaths, we communicate to our body to calm down. There are many different breathing exercises that can help us work through our emotions. Look online for different techniques.
- Playing music. Music has been shown to speed healing, calm anxiety, and reduce depression. Listening (and dancing) to a favorite song or playing an instrument can be a great stress reliever or a powerful way to express emotions.
- Journal. There’s no better way to express your emotions than to write them down. Studies show that journaling can be very therapeutic for processing difficult feelings. Teens can either write frequently in a favorite notebook, almost like a diary, or they might even find it healing to write negative emotions down on a loose-leaf sheet of paper and then either burn the paper or crumble it up and throw it away.
A lot of people who self-harm do so because they are dealing with painful emotions. It’s important to recognize the other person’s pain and listen to their feelings without judgment. To recover from self-harm, the individual must address painful emotions at the root of the behavior and also break a habit that has brought them comfort from pain. Finally, keep in mind that the stigma surrounding mental illness and self-harm creates shame and embarrassment, making it hard for people who self-harm to get help. This is not easy – they will need patience and support – but it can be overcome.