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Self-harm, practiced by about 18% of teens and 6% of adults, has been a concern for about twenty years. The self-harming behaviors are not suicidal, but are usually related to a need to seek relief from uncomfortable emotions. A large percentage of those who engage in self-harm also have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. These include conditions such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.
A recent study looked at the close connection between non-suicidal self-harming behaviors and how closely they align with substance use disorder. So, is self-harm and addiction? Read on to learn more.
Learn About Self-Harming Behavior
When most people hear the term “self-harm,” it is common to instantly connect it to suicidal intents. In reality, people do not engage in self-harm to end their life. Instead, self-harm is maladaptive attempt to relieve anxiety, loneliness, or other negative emotions.
Self-harming behaviors include any form of self-injury that causes pain or discomfort to the body. This includes:
- Skin carving.
- Punching or hitting oneself.
- Pulling one’s hair.
- Bone breaking.
Of all of these self-harming actions, cutting is by far the most prevalent.
The causes of self-harming are not yet fully understood. There are some risk factors that have been noted to be linked to this dysfunctional behavior. They include:
- Mental illness, such as bipolar, depression, anxiety, personality disorder, trauma, eating disorder.
- The person feels numb or has flat affect, which may inspires self-harm.
- Undeveloped coping skills.
- Low self-esteem.
Similar Terms Used as Substance Addiction
It has been observed on some social media forums, that people who engage in self-harm use the same terms as someone in addiction recovery. These include terms like cravings, increased tolerance, getting clean, addiction, relapse, and recovery. All of these terms are associated with substance use disorder. For this reason, the question becomes “Is self-harm an addiction, too?”
Is Self-Harm an Addiction?
The study noted above reviewed a Reddit sub-forum community of individuals that discuss self-harm. So, is self-harm and addiction? The study found that 77% of the participants met at least two DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorder. Cravings and increased tolerance were the most common features cited.
The members of this forum often discuss the concept of increased tolerance in relation to their self-harming. For them, like with substance addiction, it describes the need to ramp up the self-harming as time went on. The effects of the self-injury were waning, so they felt a need to engage in more dangerous methods. Some desired to harm themselves enough to warrant a need for medical attention.
However, the jury is out as to whether self-harm is actually an addiction. Yes, those who engage in self-harm may acquire behaviors or thoughts that are a lot like addictive features. However, it is more likely the dysfunction is rooted more in mental illness, such as OCD or an anxiety disorder.
Signs of Self-Harm
If you suspect that someone is engaging in self-harm, there are some signs you can look out for. These might include:
- Blood stains on carpet, towels, clothing, or bedding.
- Increasing signs of scars or wounds.
- Wearing cold weather clothing in hot weather, such as long sleeves or long pants.
- Explaining injuries as having frequent “accidents.”
- They have missing patches of hair.
- Isolating behaviors.
- You discover sharp objects in their bedroom or bathroom.
- Finding remnants of melted candle wax on the carpet or tile.
When you are ready to approach someone you love about their self-harm, it is important to do so in a measured way. The goal is to start a dialogue about what is troubling them, as this can help you determine next steps.
Try to find a quiet, stress-free time to sit down and share concerns with your loved one. Express an understanding of how stressful life can be, and make an effort to be nonjudgmental and calm.
Tackling the Mental Health Piece of Self-Harm
Parents may be startled to find that a teen or young adult child is engaging in self-harm. Maybe the teen or young adult has been in therapy for a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. They may have been successful at hiding the self-injuring behaviors from the parent.
If the child is not in treatment for a mental health concern, the parent should seek a therapist who specializes in self-harm. The therapist can conduct an interview and assessment to determine the underlying mental health issue present. That is the first step toward providing some help to the young person.
The therapist may refer the child to a psychiatrist that can prescribe medication that is designed for the specific mental health disorder. This plus ongoing therapy and a self-harm support group is the first line of treatment.
Treatment Solutions for Self-Harming Behaviors
Outpatient treatment may be successful for treating most individuals who struggle with self-harm. Some, however, may need a more intensive treatment program to overcome the addictive nature of these behaviors.
A residential treatment setting offers round the clock monitoring and support, as well as these treatment activities:
- Individual talk therapy. One-on-one psychotherapy sessions provide the chance to probe the background issues that may contribute to the self-harm. CBT has been useful in treating those who engage in self-harm.
- Group therapy. Assembling as small groups to discuss feelings and experiences can enhance the treatment process.
- Family therapy. Self-harm affects the whole family, not just the person with the self-harming behaviors. Dysfunctional family dynamics may be a factor in the emotional distress, so family therapy can help heal those issues as well.
- EMDR. If trauma is behind the self-harming tendencies, EMDR can help to slowly desensitize the person to the traumatic event.
- Interpersonal coping skills. Learn how to communicate better, to set boundaries, and other interpersonal tools can improve coping skills.
- Experiential therapies. Activities like art therapy, equine therapy, mindfulness, yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and journaling help achieve a calm mind state.
The Treatment Specialist Leading Resource for Mental Health Information
The Treatment Specialist is an online resource for informative articles on mental health conditions and treatment options for adults, teens, and families. If your loved one finds their self-harming has the features of an addiction, please reach out. We can guide you towards the best treatment options for your specific needs. Call us today at (866) 644-7911.