Self-harm is more common than most people think. Statistically, at least 10% of young people hurt themselves. Adults are less likely to harm themselves, with data showing only 5% of grown-ups self-harm.
Self-harming is not a cry for attention. Instead, it is a coping mechanism people develop to distract themselves from overwhelming or distracting emotions and thoughts.
However, while it is not exactly a mental health disorder, self-injury should be taken seriously. This article discusses self-harm in detail and coping mechanisms.
What Is Self Harm?
Most times, people who engage in self-injury do so to avoid dealing with painful emotions, experiences, or situations. This behavior means different things to different people.
For some, it is a way to express an emotion or experience that they cannot articulate. Others say it helps them turn invisible thoughts into something visible. Finally, some hurt themselves as a way to unleash emotional hurt physically or to feel a sense of control.
After harming themselves, there is usually a temporary sense of relief, almost cathartic. However, people who hurt themselves fail to deal with the trigger and may feel worse when the negative emotions surface next. So, there’s a continuous circle of emotional distress and self-injury the person can’t escape from.
There are some “seemingly good” reasons why you may self-harm. However, this behavior is not without risks, and the longer you depend on it to deal with situations, the harder it is to break free. Thankfully, it is possible to live without harming yourself, and we’ll show you how. But first, let’s look at some numbers.
How Many People Harm Themselves?
Anyone can practice self-harm, but the number differs among certain demographics. Below is a breakdown of the number of people who harm themselves according to the American Psychological Association (APA):
- Aside from very young children, adults are the least likely group of people to inflict self-injury. Again, only 5% of adults have self-injured in their lifetime.
- Teenagers have the highest rate of self-injurious behaviors, with about 17% admitting to self-injury at least once.
- About 15% of college students engage in self-harm.
- Although white females are more likely to self-harm, males may represent at least 35% of total self-injury cases. Also, males are more likely to underreport self-injury and allow other people to hurt them than females.
Furthermore, sexual minorities are known to harm themselves. For example, gay and bisexual people are at a high risk of self-harm. The APA reports that nearly half (47%) of all bisexual females engage in self-injury.
Since 2009, there’s been a 50% increase in reported self-injury among young females. The average age for the beginning of self-harm is 13. This age aligns with the new stressors and expectations adolescents face. It is also the period where teens develop mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, which contribute to self-injury.
What Are the Types and Symptoms of Self-Harm?
Self-injury manifests itself in people in different ways. People intentionally harm themselves in the following ways:
- Burning themselves with cigarettes, matches, or candles or cutting their skin with sharp objects
- Punching or hitting themselves
- Poisoning themselves with toxic chemicals or tablets
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Intentionally starving (anorexia nervosa) or binge eating (bulimia nervosa)
- Exercising excessively
Once a person starts inflicting injury on themselves, they exhibit the following symptoms:
- Depression or anxiety
- Wearing full coverage outfits even in extremely hot weather
- Weight loss
- Expressing feelings of failure or self-hatred
- Frequently falling ill
- Hair loss
- Bloody tissues in the dustbin
- Mood swings
Another sign to pay attention to is withdrawal from family and friends. This is because privacy is crucial to self-harm. So, when a person starts withdrawing and being less friendly, they are likely to hurt themselves.
Why Do People Harm Themselves?
Everyone faces situations that result in stress and worry, and they have different ways of coping. Some take time off by going to a retreat to distress. Others run several laps, talk to family and friends, or binge-watch their favorite shows.
These are healthy ways to deal with difficult and overwhelming situations. But not everyone has a positive way of coping with stressors. Some people bottle up everything until it becomes unbearable for them to deal with. Then, they turn it on their bodies and start inflicting injury.
If you self-harm or did in the past, you’d find that you do so when angry, distressed, worried, or depressed. People’s reasons for doing this vary from one to the next. But one or more of the below are common triggers of this harmful behavior:
- History of being bullied
- Mental illness in the family
- History of sexual abuse
- History of substance abuse in the family
- Physical abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulties at home
- Arguments or problems with friends
- Transition or unexpected changes
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Additionally, people self-injure to:
- Make themselves feel something if they are numb inside
- Avoid dealing with negative emotions
- Show they need help (note that this does not amount to seeking attention)
- Punish themselves
What You Shouldn’t Believe About Self-Harm
Self-harm is quite misunderstood, leading to several misconceptions. Some of the common myths about self-inflicted injuries are:
- People Who Self-Harm Are Attention Seekers: This assertion is false as people who exhibit this behavior do not divulge what they are going through. It is quite hard for them to ask for help, so they suffer alone for a long time.
- People Who Harm Themselves Are Suicidal: Most people view self-injury as a suicide attempt, but it is not. It’s more about finding a way to stay alive despite how dire life seems. However, some people who self-harm may feel suicidal, so it should be treated seriously.
- People Who Self-Harm Must Enjoy It: No one wants to harm themselves, and there’s no evidence that people who inflict self-injury enjoy it. People who engage in this behavior feel great pain. For some, feeling depressed leaves them so numb that they want to feel anything. It’s a reminder that they are alive even if it hurts them.
What To Do if You Self-Harm
There are ways to cope with this harmful behavior and deal with negative emotions positively. We discuss some of them below.
Identify Why You Self-Harm
When feeling the urge to hurt yourself, pause and ask yourself, “why?” Understanding the emotion behind the action gives you a clear idea of the triggers. Then develop activities to cope.
For instance, if you feel angry, physical activities can help you burn off intense emotions. So take up boxing or another exercise that requires energy. If you feel isolated, connect with people who genuinely care about you. Then, if you’re numb, do something pleasant like bathing or eating food you enjoy.
When feeling depressed or overwhelmed, a change of environment can help you avoid hurting yourself. Going outside takes you away from the self-harm tools and stays out until the urge passes. Taking a walk can have a calming effect, so:
- Walk around your neighborhood
- Go to a nearby park
- Visit at your favorite place that helps you feel calm and at peace
Physical activity distracts you and releases some of the intense pressure on your mind. Also, consider low-key outdoor exercises. If you have a dog, take it for a long walk. Alternatively, try yoga and meditation, do some stretches, or take a quick, short jog.
If crowded environments overwhelm you, avoid places with lots of people. However, being around people could distract you from self-harming thoughts. But do what’s best for you; it’s okay to start small.
Talk to a Friend
Having strong emotional support can keep you from self-harming. Try opening up to friends and family about how you feel. Start with small details until you’re ready to have an in-depth conversation. Ensure the person you’re talking to is understanding and not judgmental. If you can’t converse in person, have a video call or text.
Listen to Music
Music is therapeutic; it helps decrease pain, anxiety, fatigue, and depression. When feeling overwhelmed, listen to music. The words from the songs will distract you from the self-harm thoughts. It also regulates and processes upsetting information.
Avoid sad and melancholic music. Instead, listen to upbeat songs, nature sounds, classical music, or jazz. Then, create a playlist of happy and feel-good songs and play them when having thoughts of harming yourself.
Experiment With Guided Imagery
Meditation doesn’t always help everyone cope with distressing and harmful thoughts. Sometimes, it intensifies certain ideas and increases the urge to hurt yourself. So, switch meditation with guided imagery.
Here, you create a mental picture of a “happy place.” Then, add vivid and specific sensory details to your image. Doing this keeps your mind occupied, thereby giving you less time to entertain thoughts of self-injury.
Understanding self-harm, the causes, and triggers take you one step closer to ridding yourself of the impulse to harm yourself. Follow the coping mechanisms discussed in this article, and also get therapy. Discuss your triggers honestly with your therapist and work together to find lasting solutions. For more guidance and to learn more about psychological challenges, visit our online portal.
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