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8 Myths of Self-Harm

shutterstock_214784950Self-harm can no longer be considered a myth.  With growing attention toward internal struggles shown outwardly, the presence of self-harm is prevalent in our current culture. In spite of its presence, it is still misunderstood.  For those who have struggled with self-harm  in their lives, they know all too well the misunderstandings that come from others, regarding their struggle.

As a healthcare professional who specializes in treating this struggle, there are some common myths, which if dispelled, can take much of the power and shame away from the struggle itself.  Suffering can come in many shapes and sizes. Thankfully, so can freedom.  By dispelling these myths to a broader community of readers, many sufferers and those who hope to help will find a new way to approach this concern as allies.

Myth #1: Self-harming is attention-seeking
This myth developed as a result of the observed accompanying behavior by those in the environment of those who engage in self-harm.  Although it may seem like it is a cry for help, most people who engage in self-harm keep it private.  They hide their external wounds and hope no one will see how badly they feel.  The vast majority of these people also feel shame, embarrassment, and negativity toward their behavior and themselves, feeling as though they should be able to handle things better.

Myth #2: People who self-harm are suicidal
It is true that self-harm is a violent act against the person harming themselves.  However, most people who engage in self-harm are not trying to die.  In fact, they are often report that they are trying to find a way to live, in spite of extreme emotional suffering.  Accidental death can come from self-harm, but this is not usually the intent of the person engaging in the behavior. 

Myth #3: People who self-harm  could stop if they wanted to
As anyone who has tried to change their diet, lose weight, start a new exercise routine or remember to drive a new way home from work would tell you, changing a habit and a pattern is not easy.  Our brains and our bodies are pattern machines.  Until a client can come up with a new or different way to deal with their extreme distress, they will most likely not even think to change their behavior. More importantly, evidence of the ritual-based manner in which it occurs and the addictive properties it has, show that even if they want to stop, it will take more than willpower to change. 
Opium, a pain reliever and “feel good drug,” naturally occurs in our brains to some extent. It affects the same receptors as the dopamine neurotransmitter, which serves many of the same purposes.  When you bump your head or experience pain in your body, your brain will release dopamine in order to help you recover from the painful effects of the accident. Because of this reaction, your body will want larger and larger amounts of the same chemical in order to feel good, which begins the addictive process.  Since the brain does not know the difference between pain for distress’ relief sake or otherwise, the same addictive process can (and most likely will) occur. 

Myth #4: Self-harm is when you cut yourself
There are many types of self-harm.  Anything behavior or action that can leave a mark on your body or alter its appearance can be seen as self-harm. This is especially true if the point of the behavior is to relieve distress.  Some of the most common behaviors are: burning, scratching, hitting (often with an object), head banging, hair pulling, and nail removal.

Myth #5: People self-harm to fit in or be cool
There are many ways to be seen as cool, to have fun and to be accepted.  Self-harm is not high on that list, even with those who are in emotional distress. Self-harm is ONLY a way to cope with distressing emotions and situations. Trying it once to see what it’s like because the person saw someone else due it is part of curiosity.  Continual self-harm is no longer part of being curious or trying to fit in.

Myth #6: People who self-harm have Borderline Personality Disorder
With the growing pressure in our culture to be perfect and the impossibilities of getting there, people are experiencing internal turmoil and self-degradation on a broad spectrum.  Most people who self-harm may never develop other behaviors which would lead to a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder.  On a similar note, many people with Borderline Personality Disorder never engage in self-harm.  Self-harm is a coping mechanism that is not consistent with any one diagnosis alone.

Myth #7: Some Self Injury is Minor
There is no such thing as minor self-injury.  Our bodies are designed to fight for survival.  When your brain begins to circumvent that natural instinct, there is something wrong. Any kind of self-harm which can be observed is always a small tip or a larger underlying iceberg. 

Myth #8: Self-harm is stupid.
Considering the points already mentioned, the idea that your brain would come up with a natural way to get a “feel good” chemical to be released in response to a distressing situation or emotion which may not be tangible is actually pretty brilliant. It may not be the optimal way for your body to cope, but you have to admit that it makes much more sense now.  The focus for help should be on the encouragement and resiliency of the person and not on how much they could be doing for themselves instead.

If you or someone you know is showing signs or symptoms of extreme distress or engaging in self-harm, please treat yourself and them with gentility.  Life can throw some pretty mean curve balls, and we are all doing our best to make it through life well.  Do not hesitate to show support and care.  One of the most caring things you can do for yourself or someone else is to seek the wise counsel of a healthcare provider specializing in this area.  In the mean time, we hope that removing some of the stigma of self-harm can serve to encourage and motivate people to come out from the shadows and isolation of their suffering and to seek the help of someone who understands and can help.

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