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Anxiety and Self-Harm - A Serious Problem

Micah Abraham, BSc
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 take to fight their anxiety. Some may start exercise whilst others may turn to alcohol; while some can 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.

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.

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:

Not everyone with anxiety will self harm, but some may, if their anxiety isn’t treated, go onto self harm.

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 of 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 of serious illness and long term disability with long term self harm.

In addition, many find they get less relief the more they self-harm, causing them to need to take it 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:

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:

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.

Article Resources
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
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