By Andrea Shcramm, MA, LPC
I’ve always been interested in why self-harm occurs when people are struggling with strong negative thoughts and emotions often associated with depression and anxiety. Self-harm can take the form of cutting by using sharp objects, burning or other self-injurious means of inflicting pain and harm. Self-harm is said to be a common practice for managing strong emotional and psychological pain with roughly 20 percent of females and 14 percent of males engaging in self-harming behavior. I’ve often wondered what the science says about self-harm. Here are some interesting facts about self-harm I think will help us understand and respond with compassion when someone we know is struggling with self-harming behavior.
Something interesting about our brain is that both emotional and physical pain are registered in the same area of the brain, the anterior insula, part of the cerebral cortex behind each ear, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a hook-shaped piece of brain tissue towards the front of the brain. People who self-harm because they are overwhelmed with emotional and psychological pain can experience a decrease in their emotional and psychological pain when the physical pain of self-harm goes down after a self-injury. People who self-harm learn that while their emotional pain may peak with self-injury, it recedes on the other side; a kind of washing away of the emotional and psychological pain when the physical pain decreases after injury.
Here are two ways self-harm is reinforced in the brain. Engaging in self-harm can help us feel something when we’re emotionally numb. We are able to experience feelings and emotions through the pain of self-injury. Self-injury can take away painful feelings and emotions when the physical pain of self-injury recedes, and we feel the relief of our emotions going down as our pain goes down.
So how can we help? What do we say? What can we do? What if we have no idea why someone would self-harm themselves? There is a lot of helpful and easy to read information about self-harm online. Taking a little time to orient ourselves to the stories of others and some of the basic research on why people self-harm can help us feel more confident when approaching this behavior with someone we know and love. Express concern and compassion by telling the person you want to help in any way you can. Help the person find their way to counseling and find the right person to talk with about their feelings. We can make ourselves available to people who need to talk by just listening and letting them know we are there to hear them.
Here are two online resources available if we ourselves are uncomfortable engaging in conversation with someone who is self-harming. Maybe we just don’t know what to say or where to start. A good resource is NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness. Crisis Text Line is a website that provides resources, information and texting for support. If you believe someone is seriously injuring themselves by self-harming, call 911.
NAMI The National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://namimissouri.org/
Self-Harm Crisis Text Line: https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/self-harm/
JENNIFER EULBERG, MA, LPC
Welcome Jennifer, our new blogger!
Jennifer is a counselor at Sandhill who specializes in depression, self-esteem, and grief & loss. Get to know Jennifer as she shares her perspectives on life, contemplates value themes, and offers gentle encouragement.
THANK YOU to Stefanie Pisarkiewicz, LPC for her blog contributions from November 2014 - February 2019!