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Dr Adrian Lord 360X246

Page was clinically reviewed by Dr Adrian Lord (MBBS), Consultant General Adult, Forensic & Addiction Psychiatrist, and Medical Director based at Priory Hospital Chelmsford in September 2020

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harming, also known as self-injury, is a relatively common behaviour where someone may hurt themselves to feel temporary relief from their pain. It is often concealed from friends and family members, so it can be difficult to spot. If you are worried that a member of your family or a friend may be self-harming, look out for an increase in spending more time on their own, watch out for any tablets which may go missing and any sharp objects including knives and scissors.

Self-harming may start in childhood and increase in frequency and severity in adolescence as the pressures of growing up coupled with bodily and hormonal changes in puberty take their toll.

Drastic changes in a person’s situation, such as end of a relationship, an increase in work related stress, or any other significant personal trauma can contribute to the intense emotions which lead to the urge to self-harm.

Why do People Self-Harm?

Self-harming can provide temporary relief from feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress or self-loathing.

The pain that is inflicted can release endorphins and a rush of adrenaline, which often become pleasurable to the sufferer and causes them to temporarily forget other negative feelings that they may be experiencing, although this is often short-lived, and the internal anguish often remains afterwards.

Intentionally injuring yourself is frequently associated with adolescents, and in fact, recent figures show that it is impinging on younger people more than ever before. The stresses of puberty, school life and the influence of social media can be challenging for some adolesents and can often result in anxiety and depression. When depression and anxiety mount, some turn to self-harming, and many parents say they just do not know how to help their child in the best way. Fortunately, self-harming is not an attention seeking behaviour and is a coping mechanism. 

Dr van Zwanenberg offers ten practical tips for parents worried about self-harming

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr van Zwanenberg, discusses why some adolesants self harm, how to spot the signs of self-harm and provides ten practical tips for parents to help avoid and manage self harming symptoms. 

"“If a young person is suddenly wearing long sleeves for example for sport when they used to wear short sleeves, or tracksuit bottoms instead of shorts, they may be trying to hide marks"

Read the pracitcal tips for parents worried about self-harming here.

Signs of Self-Harm

Dr Paul McLaren, General Adult Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, explains that self-harm is a common sign of psychological dysfunction. It has seeped into popular culture and spans the generations from childhood to old age. 80% of self-harm episodes involve stabbing or cutting the skin with a sharp object. Self-cutting and overdosing are the most common forms, but other self-injurious behaviour includes:

  • Punching hard objects
  • Picking at skin
  • Hair pulling
  • Swallowing foreign bodies 
  • Intentional poisoning with medication
  • Burning parts of the body 

More complex behaviours such as piercing or tattooing, while socially sanctioned, can have similar psychological drivers in some individuals. Munchausen’s syndrome and factitious disorder also share some of the psychopathology.

As self-injury is often assossiated with minors, there are some additional signs that parents can look out for if they think their child is hurting themselves. These 6 signs of self-harm for parents may come in useful for any parent, guardian, or even friend who is concerned about someone. 

Psychological Symptoms of Self-Harming

While the physical impact of self-harming can be more apparent, the psychological difficulties experienced if you self-harm can be extreme.

Feelings of anxiety, frustration and depression regarding your current situation, or as a result of personal trauma, ultimately become so overwhelming that damaging your body provides temporary relief. Psychological symptoms of self-harming include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Frustration
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Social isolation

What Causes Self-Harm?

Due to self-harm affecting people of all ages, it is believed that the overwhelming emotional issues that can affect you at any stage of life are a major factor behind self-harming, as a means of coping and releasing built-up tension or frustration.

Self-harm is a symptom of mental distress and in a high proportion of those presenting for help, it is evidence of underlying psychiatric disorders or emotional distress. A wide range of psychological processes can lead to self-harm. For example in adolescence, emotional distress is common and self-harm can emerge as a maladaptive coping strategy.

Common underlying diagnoses are:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Maladaptive personality traits, such as borderline personality disorder

Those who self-harm may also struggle with emotional diffiiculties that have external influencing factors. Others causes of self-harm could be: 

  • Social and relationship problems - social issues can affect anybody at any age, with bullying in school or the workplace, having relationships problems with partners, friends and family, as well as coping with gender or cultural expectations can all cause a build-up of anxiety, stress or depression which can ultimate lead to an urge self-harm
  • Trauma or abuse - physical or sexual abuse either as a child or adult can lead to confusing feelings of self-blame and low self-esteem, while severe trauma such as the death of immediate family members and close friends, or having a miscarriage can trigger symptoms of depression

Treating Self-Harm

In respect of treatment, the physical complications should be managed first. This should be done promptly and efficiently and that can set a positive tone and facilitate subsequent communication. Self-harm treatment will depend on the underlying psychiatric conditions. If they are depressed or anxious, those conditions should be treated assertively.

Treatment may involve outpatient visits for sessions with a psychologist or a psychotherapist. If an act had serious suicidal intent then inpatient treatment or intensive community support may be required. This would then encompass a combination of group and private therapy sessions with a psychologist, and can also involve family sessions, talking therapies, or medication.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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