Suffering Silently: Using Self-Injury as a Coping Mechanism

Self-injury is when an individual cuts, burns, hits, or bites themselves as a way to cope with emotional pain. This practice is often unnoticed- hidden by long sleeves and silent mouths. Not many people disclose that they have a self-injury problem, yet a study revealed that 1 in 12 teenagers practice or have practiced self-injury.

Most reported cases of self-injury occur in teens; however, if an individual finds that their self-injury helps them cope, this habit may continue into adulthood.

Why Individuals Engage in Self-Injury

Dr. Barbara Stanley, Director of the Suicide Intervention Center at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, says that for some people, self-injury is one of the first steps toward suicide. Individuals are experimenting and toying with death. But for others, she stresses, they have no intention of killing themselves. In fact, they may be using self-injury in a less lethal attempt to cope with their pain.

Dr. John Walkup, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, agrees with Stanley that individuals who have no other efficient coping mechanism in their lives may resort to self-injury. Doctors explain that the following are the main reasons why people inflict injury upon themselves:

  • Emotion Regulation – Some individuals practice non-suicidal self-injury as a way to cope with emotions like anxiety and tension. They explain that after they experience the physical pain of cutting, they feel an emotional release from psychological pain.
  • Feeling Alive – Some individuals injure themselves to feel more alive. Just as some use drugs to feel a high, others practice self-injury. Both can be addictive and deadly. Sometimes these individuals cut themselves with others in a group setting to bond with others in the experience.
  • Self-punishment – When some individuals feel very low about themselves, at fault with their unsatisfying life, or a failure in something, they may inflict pain upon themselves as a self-punishment. Suffering from very low self-esteem, these individuals believe they deserve the pain.
  • Escape From Others – Some injure themselves in an attempt to get out of relationships and to distance themselves from family or friends.

Signs of Self-Injury

  • Cuts or burns on arms, legs, stomach, or hips
  • A stash of knives, razor blades, lighters or matches in a child’s room
  • Always wearing long sleeves and/or long pants, even in very hot weather
  • Isolating themselves in a bedroom or bathroom for long periods of time

How to Help Those That Suffer From Self-Injury

If guardians find out that their teen is injuring themselves, they can help them in the following ways:

  • Be sensitive with them and reassure them of your love
  • Seek a professional counselor who may be able to give your teen an alternative physical way to relieve stress (squeezing a rubber ball or manipulating other physical objects until the urge to hurt themselves subsides)
  • Realize this may be an addiction and it may take time for them to “quit.”
  • Lock away any potentially harmful objects your child might be tempted to use.

Stanley stresses that self-injury can be treated while the child is still young. Even though most individuals tend to quit practicing self-injury before they become an adult, the problem shouldn’t be ignored thinking that, “Oh, they will eventually grow out of it.” Stanley suggests getting help for the teens now and helping them find a mentally and physically healthier way to understand and cope with their emotions.

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