Self-harm - manipulation or distress? Matters of the mind

2016-08-24 06:00

“SELF-HARM” or “self-injury” are terms used to describe any behaviour in which a person intentionally hurts him or herself.

Common ways of doing this include cutting or burning one’s body, often on the wrists, legs or stomach. Self-harming behaviour is most commonly seen in adolescent populations, and particularly adolescent girls.

Self-harm is often trivialised by society, being viewed as a form of “attention-seeking” or “manipulation”. However, for most individuals who engage in self-harm, the primary motivation is to reduce negative emotion.

Certain feelings, such as stress, depression, loneliness, rage or emptiness can become so distressing, that the person needs a way to release this built up emotion. Self-harm, through causing physical pain, offers a way of avoiding and escaping the emotional pain.

Because it does relieve the emotional pain in the short-term, this behaviour can become addictive. A person may start to believe that self-harming is the only way to cope with emotional distress.

In the long-term, however, self-harm is not a solution to emotional distress, and can even add to emotional problems. Furthermore, self-harm is a predictor for later suicide attempts and as such, these behaviours need to be taken very seriously.

What can I do if I’m self-harming?

Should self-harming have become your way of distracting yourself from emotional pain, you need to develop other ways of distracting yourself in moments of distress. Music, relaxation or exercise are healthy distraction activities. If you experience the urge to cut, try holding onto an ice–cube until it melts as a way of managing the wish for physical pain. Finally, consider seeking professional help with a psychologist – talking through issues is very helpful in learning to manage your emotions.

What can I do if I suspect a friend or family member is self-harming?

Firstly, don’t judge. Secondly, don’t expect the person to be able to stop immediately. Self-harm may have become a coping mechanism they rely on. Try to talk openly and compassionately with the person, and encourage the individual to seek professional help.

Common ways of doing this include cutting or burning one’s body

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