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Self Help - Understanding Self Harm

Andrew has worked with a friend of mine and really helped drag them away from the fire and back to their old, bouncy self. Thanks Andrew!

Dave Gibson

Self harm is often misunderstood. Here I am referring to people who cut, burn or hit themselves. I am not referring to people who are making repeated attempts to kill themselves. All too often individuals can end up being judged or inappropriately diagnosed by services that end up alienating the very people they ought to be helping.

As with so many other behaviours which, on the face of it, can be difficult to understand, self harm is simply an extreme form of commonly occurring behaviour. When people are angry, hurt or frustrated they will often berate themselves, hit out or damage something. People actually say that they could pull their hair out, and most of us can identify with this. Frustration or upset overwhelms us to the point where we clench our fists, and shake them, gripping our head or hair often follows. In doing this tension is released. It is this simple process that underlies the self harm that many people come to use as a way of coping.

To understand how people reach the point where they purposely and deliberately inflict pain and damage to their bodies you have to accept that what is happening is simply a more elaborate attempt to find a way to cope when faced with exceptional emotional pressure and a lack of any real support.

It is then understandable that people who have been subjected to unbearable emotional pressures and left to cope on their own discover that physical pain is a more bearable alternative. It acts as a distraction, providing an alternative focus. Endorphins are released in the body and these can actually dull any pain and, at times, provide a kind of rush or high. Anything that provides short term relief from unbearable pain can be addictive. As a result self harm can become a habitual way of coping and difficult to stop.

Self harm is one way of coping. Another strategy that people often learn to use when faced with severe pressure is to dissociate, to turn the mind away from what is happening and focus completely on something else. This has been described as being like a form of self hypnosis. This is a powerful process which involves a complete switching of attention and a blocking out of the thing that is unbearable. Again we can see similar processes at work in more common situations. If you think about people who have lost someone close to them, they often go through a period of absolute denial. It is all too much to face at the time and they refuse to believe it denying any evidence presented to them.

Help and understanding is available, though the road to it can be rocky and difficult. All too often demands are placed on people who self harm to stop what they are doing when no alternative coping mechanisms are available to them. Suggestions that people are simply "attention seeking" or "manipulative" could not be further from the truth. Individuals who self harm usually treat this as an extremely private matter and are often very surprised to find that other people are using similar strategies in order to cope.

Like any other addictive behaviour there are usually additional underlying problems that led to that behaviour developing in the first place. This has often involved prolonged periods of abuse and neglect. Any help offered may well need to address issues at both these levels. There is an increasing amount of literature available that will help you understand the difficulties that you might be having and some of these along with various internet sites are listed below. Finding the right therapist is not always easy though more and more professionals are becoming increasingly familiar with these problems and are able to offer sensitive and appropriate support and treatment.

Self Harm Further Reading


The Scarred Soul
Tracy Alderman

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An excellent starting point with numerous links.