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Anxiety and Self-Harm - A Serious Problem

Developing anxiety implies that you have a coping problem. While anxiety may affect you at a chemical level (via neurotransmitters that communicate mood in your brain), the ability to control anxiety is primarily based on your own mental coping strength. Coping is, in many ways, like a muscle, and when it grows too weak your anxiety starts to take over.

When it does, most people tend to seek out actions they can do to fight their anxiety. Some try exercise. Others turn to alcohol. Still others turn to self-harm and self-mutilation. In this article, we'll discuss that latter group, and explain why self-harm occurs and why it is more than just a physically unhealthy coping strategy.

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Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Strategies

Remember, coping isn't a "strategy." Coping is a mental muscle that you strengthen in order to help you overcome anxiety. Activities that help you control anxiety - with a few exceptions - are only tools that seem to strengthen your mental coping muscle. Learn more by taking my anxiety test now.

When we talk about unhealthy strategies, we're not just talking about these strategies being physically unhealthy. For example, we know that alcohol abuse is extremely bad for your body, potentially even deadly, but that's not what makes it "unhealthy" when it comes to coping. What makes it unhealthy is that in addition to being physically unhealthy, it's also psychologically unhealthy.

When you cope with alcohol, you don't improve your mental coping strength. Instead, your body simply starts to depend on alcohol, and your actual coping ability without alcohol actually gets _weaker_. That's one of the reasons that alcoholics, drug addicts, and even gambling addicts that overcome their addictions sometimes go back to those same addictions when they're stressed - their brains essentially forgot how to cope any other way.

Self-Harm and Coping

Which brings us to self-harm. Self-harm is an unhealthy coping strategy. By self-harm, we're talking about things like cutting (mutilation involving a razor to the skin), burning the skin on purpose, scratching to create blood or pain, or otherwise hurting the body.

Some people turn to self-mutilation as a way to cope with anxiety. Scientists are not entirely clear why this behavior occurs, but it likely has to do with the following:

  • Pain Masking Pain Physical pain tends to take priority over mental pain, so when someone is feeling stressed, depressed, etc., creating physical pain seems to be overwhelming enough that they temporarily get a break from their mental health problems.
  • Control Many people that self-harm feel as though they are losing control. In a way, self-harm is an unhealthy way to show control by being in charge of how you affect your body. Some people find that it also keeps the in reality when they feel their stress is causing them to zone out, thus allowing them to regain control of themselves.
  • Attention Those that self-harm aren't necessarily attention seekers, in the sense that not all self-harm is a desire to be noticed, but self-harm may be a cry for help, as well as a way of knowing something about yourself that if others knew would cause more attention to be placed on you.
  • Endorphins Perhaps one of the most forgotten reasons for self-harm is because the body releases pain killers to help people deal with the pain, known as endorphins. Endorphins are also involved in the experience of many "relaxed" feelings within the brain. Thus by hurting themselves, they are semi-unintentionally releasing chemicals in their brain that actually make them feel better.

Self-harm is often its own unique psychological problem, and unfortunately it isn't only caused by anxiety. But many people do turn to hurting themselves as a way to cope with anxiety and stress.

Why Self-Harm is Dangerous

It should be obvious why self-harm is a dangerous problem. On a strictly physical level, self-harm causes pain, puts you at risk for infection, can lead to irreparable scarring, and possible long term damage to your health. Harm is called harm for a reason, and it's dangerous. Many people put themselves at risk for serious illness and long term disability with the ways they harm themselves, even if they take precautions or only use small cuts.

In addition, many find they get less and less relief the more they self-harm, causing them to need to take it further and further until they are hurting themselves even more. This can spiral out of control and lead to serious danger and possibly even death.

But these are not the only reasons that self-harm is dangerous. Self-harm is also dangerous because it doesn't actually do what it appears to provide, or there are very easy and effective alternatives:

  • Endorphins Perhaps the greatest reason that self-harm is a poor coping strategy is because there is a considerably easier way to release endorphins: go running. Jogging for 30 minutes creates a "high" of endorphins that is so strong, that it is actually more effective than most anxiety medications. Self-harm actually releases fewer endorphins and provides less relief than simply going for a run every day.
  • Lost Coping In a way, self-harm works like a drug. You hurt yourself, you experience pain, and you wait for your natural painkillers to take over. Like drugs, self-harm reduces your ability to cope with stress without harming yourself. Your ability to cope with anxiety with something other than self-harm starts to weaken. Eventually you "need" to hurt yourself more in order to get some relief, because your mind knows no other way of coping - even with lesser stressors.
  • Causes Anxiety Perhaps the biggest issue is that shows why self-harm is such a poor anxiety coping strategy is that it actually causes anxiety. Anxiety is a cumulative condition. Anything that causes anxiety in your life will make your overall anxiety worse. Self-harm causes anxiety while you're harming (anticipation of pain), it causes anxiety after you're harming (healing), it causes anxiety as a result of any scarring and it causes anxiety because of shame over doing it.

A coping strategy that causes more anxiety that eventually causes you to use it more as a coping strategy is a bad coping strategy. Even if it didn't cause physical risks it would be a bad coping strategy, and when you add in the physical risks, it's easy to see why self-harm is dangerous in multiple ways.

In fact, one of the ways that people are "cured" of self-harm as a coping tool is by simply being kept away from it. Self-harm causes so much anxiety and dependence all on its own that some people are cured of the behavior simply because they stop doing it for a long enough time. That shows you how much self-harm creates a need for more self-harm, and why it is a very unhealthy strategy for controlling anxiety.

How to Cope With Anxiety Instead of Self-Mutilation

If you self-harm or have even remotely considered it, you need to replace it with something else - something that can actually work, and something that will make your ability to cope with anxiety better.

It's no surprise that some of the treatments used to cope with anxiety are also used to keep people too busy from self-harm. The following are examples of coping tools that strengthen your natural coping ability so that you respond to stress better:

  • Exercise Of course, exercise is priority number one, and there is no way around it - especially if you are also cutting or hurting yourself. Exercise releases the very same endorphins, but unlike self-harm, it doesn't cause any negative psychological damage and may actually improve things like self-confidence and self-worth. Exercise may not be easy at first, but over time you should find very powerful relief.
  • Journal Writing Coping is helpful when you have activities that you can do when you feel stressed. Many people find that writing out your thoughts in a journal - anxious thoughts or not - provides relief. In a way, that relief comes because your mind becomes more solution focused, and doesn't feel it needs to remember the issues that stress you out knowing that they are all in one place.
  • Keeping Busy - The simple act of keeping as busy as possible and using your brain can provide relief from both anxiety and self-harm. A forgotten part of coping is simply the ability to get a break from anxiety and move on from your life. When you're very busy, and your schedule is planned out all day (with healthy activities of course, preferably spending time with emotionally healthy people), your mind can't focus on your anxieties, which gives it a chance to recover behind the scenes.

As you can see, these are all fairly easy things to integrate into your life, and they are well-known and effective tools for coping with your anxiety.

If you are self-harming, don't leave anything to chance. Talk to someone right away. See if there is a doctor, psychologist, school counselor, or some other individual that you can talk to, because self-harm is self-sustaining and can spiral out of control. It's not something you should leave the chance, and the damage you do now can unfortunately haunt you the rest of your life.

Also, take my free 7 minute anxiety test. It's a useful tool for learning how to control your anxiety, how your anxiety compares to others, and more.

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Chapman, Alexander L., Kim L. Gratz, and Milton Z. Brown.Solving the puzzle of deliberate self-harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behaviour research and therapy 44.3 (2006): 371-394.

DiClemente, Ralph J., Lynn E. Ponton, and Dianna Hartley.Prevalence and correlates of cutting behavior: Risk for HIV transmission. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 30.5 (1991): 735-739.

Kumar, Geetha, Deanna Pepe, and Robert A. Steer.Adolescent psychiatric inpatients' self-reported reasons for cutting themselves. The Journal of nervous and mental disease 192.12 (2004): 830-836.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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