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A Guide to Addiction and Self-Harm

Posted on January 10, 2020

A Guide to Addiction and Self-Harm

When it becomes difficult to express or communicate our experiences and traumas in a way that seems meaningful, our inner angst can often lead us to a place where the only available outlet is self-harm or mutilation.

While many things can drive us to resort to hurting ourselves as a way of dealing with negative emotions, several forms of this condition may share a commonality with painful addictions that are rooted in limiting belief systems and unfortunate behaviour patterns.

Approximately 17% of all people will engage in self-harm at some point in their lives: nearly 20% of women, and only 14% report to committing this activity [1].

It’s worth our time to examine the problem more in-depth to develop a better insight into this modern-day problem.

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Self-Harm

In cases where alcohol abuse is present, the risk for self-harm becomes significantly higher.

Misusing alcohol creates conditions that are ripe for self-harm, by inflicting such states of mind as impairment of judgment, loss of inhibition, and predisposition toward aggressive or erratic behaviours.

Excess alcohol can lead to a state of mind that emphasizes the underlying conditions leading to actions of self-harm, as illustrated in a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information [2].

While certainly, not all alcoholics engage in self-harm or vice-versa, the various effects of alcohol can certainly provide a firm foundation from which the dubious qualities associated with self-harm can grow.

This means that those who both abuse alcohol and have shown a tendency to engage in self-harm activities may be especially at risk and particularly in need to seek out professional therapy and help.

The Relationship Between Drugs and Self-Harm

Many forms of substance abuse are accompanied by some form of mental instability or illness, and when working in tandem, they can often lead to dark emotional or mental states from which self-harm can rear its ugly head.

This is where open communication becomes essential to restoring a healthy lifestyle, as the destructive habits of substance abuse and self-harm find themselves most comfortable in situations where the victim has nowhere to turn.

Depression and bouts of depression can be responsible for making people more susceptible to drug abuse, suicidal tendencies, and self-harm, and both men and women are at risk.

While more men follow through on suicidal thoughts, women are more prone to having them, and when depression takes hold in such a way it can put the victim on a path to both addiction and self-harm.

Understanding the thought processes involved in these conditions can be the first stage of diagnosing the problem and seeking help to get back on track toward recovery.

Being aware of the scenarios and situations you find yourself in and making certain you are surrounded by supportive and positive people is one powerful way to promote a healthy lifestyle that departs from the harmful conditions that can cause addictive behaviour and self-harm.

While many of these two conditions share common symptoms, you don’t have to remain trapped in cycles that lead one to another.

How Alcohol Affects Mental Health

The profound impact that alcohol can have on the state of one’s mental health shouldn’t be overlooked, especially in the context of self-harm.

Consistent and excessive alcohol use leads to many unsatisfactory symptoms, including anxiety and depression, unclear thinking patterns, and personality changes that can trigger or strengthen already existing signals for depression or impulsive actions.

Alcohol also disrupts memory and the normal rhythm of daily mental functions, which can interrupt a productive lifestyle and throw the victim off course.

The studies and facts support the notion that adding alcohol to the equation does place those at risk for destructive behaviour in harm’s way.

Different Forms of Self-Harm

While over 40% of people turn to cutting themselves as their self-harm of method of choice,[3] many more exist that plague people of every age, gender, and class.

Another thing to note is that 70% of those who repeatedly engage in self-harm do so by using varying techniques and methods.

Most of those who do this employ 2 to 4 ways of harming themselves, and can include such techniques as burning themselves, ripping their own skin, and scratching or pinching themselves in a severe way using either their own teeth and nails or even external objects.

Tearing at the skin, preventing the healing of existing wounds, or carving signs and symbols into the skin are yet other ways that those practicing self-harm can display their symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

Spotting the signals of self-harm often require a discerning eye, and unless you’re aware of what to look for, you may not know until the problem has matured in severity.

However, once you’ve gained a working knowledge of the signs and symptoms, you’ll be able to address the victim with questions and realize when a situation presents itself where someone may be suffering the effects of self-harm.

People who often proclaim the need to be “left alone” and avoid social gatherings altogether may be showing signs of the problem, along with the constant need to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.

Those displaying impulsive and erratic behaviours typically have a higher risk factor, as well as if they seem to be withdrawn and no longer engaging in functions or activities they once took joy in [4] .

Things to look for on a person’s body that also could be symptomatic of self-harmful behaviour includes fresh cuts and scratches, scars or bruises, missing hair, and broken bones.

If there are many challenges or confrontations that are taking place as a pattern in a person’s life, it may have an association with the underlying emotional and psychological causes that lead to self-harm.

If there are consistently sharp objects or tools that may be used for self-injury kept on that person, in their belongings, or within their home or vehicle, this too may be a sign of destructive behaviour taking place.

Many mental and emotional conditions almost always accompany these additional signs, and if there happens to be a clear pattern of hopelessness, worthlessness, depression, guilt, or disgust, it may be time to consult with a medical or psychological professional who can better assess the state of the victim in question.

Self-Harming Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

When signs begin to reveal themselves about a loved one or friend who is suffering from an emotionally stressful or harmful system of behaviour, it can be difficult to know where to turn to or how to react.

It’s important to realize the severity of the problem that is self-harm, and how indicative it may be of deeper issues such as suicide or impulsive decisions that can potentially lead to a lifetime of consequences if unchecked.

Combining these struggles with addiction caused by substances such as drugs and alcohol can only make matters worse, heightening the risk for something unwanted or unfortunate to take place.

Due to the fact that both emotional and physical pain are both perceived in the same region of the brain according to Smithsonian Magazine[3], actions such as harming oneself physically may logically follow from those dealing with emotional distress such as trauma or severe depression.

Since self-harm, even in a limited or small amount is an indication of bigger issues at play, it’s important to seek out professional therapeutic or psychological assistance from a professional as soon as possible.

How to Help a Loved One Who Self-Harms

When it’s time to get healing for someone you care about who may be suffering from self-harm, it’s a good approach to avoid panicking or anything that would alarm or upset the victim while you approach the subject.

Always be considerate and mindful of their underlying symptoms when raising important topics.

Listen to the input they offer, and separate the most-pressing and immediate matters from those that can be dealt with later down the road. This will help you to deal with the subject in a calm, cool, and direct way.

Acknowledge the victim for the person they are, rather than simply looking at their symptoms or condition, and strive to provide an open atmosphere where genuine discussion can take place.

It’s good to recognize they are a person who realizes they may need help also, regardless of what may be said. Realize the immensity of the issues they may be facing in their own life, and give them a shoulder to lean on when they need it most.

Treatments for Self-Harm

Different stages of self-harm and levels of underlying factors and associated conditions will all contribute to making a determination about the proper way to address the issue.

Finding a group of like-minded people who are dealing with similar problems and sharing one another’s stories in an atmosphere of caring and support can be a great way to face many of the situations long kept inside, whether through an inpatient program or another program in the outside world.

These therapy sessions may be either conducted on their own or as a family unit nearby for added support and communication. There a wide variety of treatment and therapy models available for those engaged in self-harm, many of which are listed below.

a. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), patients are willing to discuss the emotions that can lead to self-harm with a practicing, licensed therapist in a one-on-one setting.

This allows the patient to express themselves freely and work toward healthier habits in order to overcome harming themselves or being overtaken by these negative thoughts and feelings.

b. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

Focusing on positive thinking habits that are put in place to defeat the negative thought-processes that often lead to self-harm, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Sessions also take place in a one-on-one format between the victim and a therapist, however typically with an even more targeted regimen of accepting who the victim is and ridding themselves of the self-hatred commonly associated with bouts of self-harm.

c. Psychodynamic Therapy

When a victim of self-harm is showing clear signs of underlying mental or psychological problems associated with the practice such as anxiety, depression, or any number of other disorders, then turning to Psychodynamic Therapy as a means of coping with the problem may prove to be the best solution.

These types of therapy sessions involve taking a good look at past events and how they are affecting the victim today. Oftentimes, negative experiences in our history linger on and make their impact known in our present-day lives.

By facing these challenges to produce a more positive outlook and break free from the destructive hold these experiences may have on us, we’re better able to adjust to a healthy way of living without the need for substance abuse and self-harm.

4. Family Therapy

Engaging the family structure toward the victim’s problem, especially in cases of adolescents or young adults, can be an especially powerful means to recovery as this is the primary support structure in the lives of most everyone struggling from self-harm.

Conducting family therapy sessions together allows for open dialogue and strengthens the bonds of communication between family members, which can increase the chances of a successful recovery in the long term.

While Family Therapy may not be the best option for every situation, it can offer a unique and positive way to create a firm foundation for a strong recovery from the problems that victims of self-harm must deal with.

How to Prevent Self-Harming

There are a number of conditions and behavioural patterns that can lead someone to engage in self-harm, some of the most common of which include poor coping skills or trouble with how to properly handle emotions in a healthy manner.

Recognizing the signs as early as possible, whether by the victims themselves or through a close friend or loved one, is the first step in the process towards taking proactive action to stop it.

If you believe that your life or the life of someone you care for may be in danger, then it’s absolutely crucial to seek out emergency help right away so that no one ends up hurt or in danger.

Reaching out to a loved one is a good first step in the process, and from there more comprehensive options can be considered such as an emergency hotline, a mental health professional, a school nurse or mentor, or even a valued spiritual leader.

The Stigma Around Self-Harm

Self-harm is quite often cast by society as a practice only done by attention-seekers or those struggling with a mental disease such as schizophrenia, however, this is a wrong assumption.

This pressure can make it difficult for those practicing self-harm to come out of the closet and share their experiences openly, and it isn’t unusual for victims to feel shameful, guilty, or embarrassed.

Self-harm impacts both men and women of every age and is ubiquitous across society with regards to whom it effects.

Remaining in these stigmas and labels commonly associated with those dealing with self-harm can worsen and deepen underlying problems, while in contrast, fostering an open environment where victims feel safe to freely communicate is fertile soil for producing a positive outcome toward recovery.

Difference Between Self-Harm and Suicide Ideation

While suicide ideation and self-harm share many common traits and can many times be associated with one another, they are individual in nature and must be approached as two separate phenomena.

Self-harm is oftentimes fuelled by substance abuse, and can be used as a way to outwardly express inner angst or intense feelings that have been suppressed or are difficult to adequately address. Because these actions often take place while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, there is a strong association between self-harm and addiction.

Suicidal tendencies are usually driven on the other hand by a desire to put an end to the pain that victims are experiencing in their lives, using death as an escape from the problems they are confronting.

Self-harm is used, on the other hand, as a way to release for deep emotional or psychological suffering brought about by a traumatic experience, depression, or any number of psychological conditions and situations.

By inflicting pain upon themselves, those practicing self-harm are able to create an outward manifestation of the struggle they are keeping inside on a day to day basis.


Self-harm is a diverse condition that can target people from every background, walk of life, gender, or financial means.

Having a deeper understanding of the warning signs associated with self-harm and the conditions most frequently associated with the practice can equip concerned families, friends, and victims with the necessary foresight and tools they need to fight back and gain a footing on these destructive and often chaotic tendencies.

The problems surrounding self-harm can come in a wide variety of shapes and forms, each with their own set of unique and individual circumstances that affect victims in different ways.

Turning to help, whether at home or by seeking out a professional, is a great first initiative to placing the victim on the road toward a brighter tomorrow.

Honesty and openness are of critical importance throughout each stage of the process, and it must be made certain that the victim can express themselves without fear of judgment or ridicule.

There is hope for a brighter future, and through educating families and victims about what to look for and their choices for making it better, we empower those suffering from this condition with the ability and means to find a brighter, better tomorrow.






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