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What is Self-Harm?

Nonsuicidal self-injury, or self-harm, is the act of harming own’s own body on purpose, and not usually associated with a suicide attempt, as a way to cope with emotions. It typically starts in adolescence, but any age group can be affected by NSSI. Self-harm typically involves cutting or burning as a way to cope with heavy emotions like stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, or deep emotional pain.


Self-injury may result in temporary relief from emotional tension, but shame and guilt usually follow the act. Life-threatening injuries are usually not intentional but possible if the self-injury is serious enough.


Great, now that we got that out of the way, let’s look at what causes self-harm.


As I mentioned above, self-harm is usually associated with teenagers. You’ll probably hear this a lot if you’re the parent of a teen or a teenager yourself, that you’ll “grow out of it”. So imagine the shame if you’re an adult and still haven’t grown out of NSSI.


Here’s a truth about self-harm:


Self-harm is a coping skill.


And we usually don’t simply grow out of coping skills.


Think about it, if yourself or someone you love is going through a difficult season or experiencing a heavy emotion, and the only way they know to relieve the emotion is through self-injury, age won’t take away the reliance on the coping skill, only developing new coping skills will.


So how do we get new coping skills? And why does self-harm become a coping skill for some but not others?


Causes of Self-Harm


Self-harm is caused by a lack of positive, helpful coping skills. Teens and adults learn that self-harm seems to relieve emotional distress, but in reality, it does nothing to fix what is happening on the inside. However, when a person starts to build a reliance on self-harm, it will be difficult to use other coping skills when the first skill is what the person knows. But how does a person even know what self-harm is in the first place?


Typically, self-harm starts in adolescence, and is usually a result of environmental and social factors, like society, movies and tv shows, or peers. On top of environment and social factors, mental health or life issues will impact a teenager’s ability to find positive coping skills. Neglect, physical or emotional abuse, traumatic events, mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and drug or alcohol abuse impact coping skill availability.


These factors create a perfect storm for self-harm. Because a positive coping skill has not been introduced to the teenager, self-harm may become the only coping skill they know. Self-harm may be a result of the teenager trying to relieve stress or anxiety, feel in control over body or circumstance, distract from emotional pain, feel something (in depression), express feelings externally, or punish oneself.


I hope by now you can see that self-harm is not something a person simply “grows out of”. For teenagers, and adults, creating more effective coping skills will become the goal of treatment.


Talk therapy and  processing the emotions the person is unable to express, is a pivotal point of change for those struggling with self-harm. We can create different coping strategies for the individual, no matter the age, but first and foremost we’ll need to help that individual communicate with themselves and others what the internal feelings are. Then, helping the individual navigate emotional or stressful life circumstances, and make sense of their feelings, will be the next step. Introducing positive coping skills for processing big emotions without the use of self-harm.

You Got This.

Samantha Hoover, MS, LPC

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