Self-harm is the deliberate infliction of injury on one’s body. The most obvious example is cutting the skin with a razor or other sharp implement. Other examples are burning the skin with cigarettes or hitting one’s self.
Self-harm can counteract emotional distress as physical pain can block out and distract from psychological pain, and can even have a calming effect. It is a way of managing emotions in some ways similar to the way people use physical activity or exertion when they are a little upset, such as going for a run, cleaning the bathroom or digging the garden.
Self-harming often begins in teenage years. During this time the brain and body are undergoing great changes, moving from childhood to adulthood; becoming independent, forming identity and developing sexuality. Enormous changes in the brain accompany the physical and hormonal changes of puberty. For some teenagers, this results in massive emotional intensity before they are ready to manage these feelings. The result can be overwhelming as uncontrolled emotions often feel scary and shameful. As a result, some teenagers start self-harming to cope, especially when difficult things are happening in their lives.
Sometimes self-harming starts as a way of relieving boredom or as experimentation. The trouble is it can become rather habit forming. Like any habit, more and more injury may be required to get the same effect. All this means self-harm may escalate and become increasingly dangerous.
It is also a lonely way of coping. Because self-harm frequently shocks and upsets others, it is often kept a secret. Someone who is self-harming often feels ‘cut-off’ from their family and friends; that no one understands them or can help them. The resulting isolation also interferes with normal psychological growth and development.
People who self-harm often go it alone, determined not to show any weakness or need anyone else, while feeling quite desperate. This mix can sometimes include thoughts of death, enormous frustration, and hatred of most everyone and everything, including themselves.
Therapy offers a safe space to be just as you are with someone who understands the unbearable intensity of feelings that underlie self-harm. A therapist will stand by you in the storm, help you bear the unbearable, work with you to understand what is going on, then sort it out together and find a way through to a better place.