The sensation surged from somewhere inside, poison flowed through each vein and numbed every working cell in the human body. Hearts thumping, hands trembling, and sweat trickling down a nervous face. A mix of sadness, anxiety and shame that would be difficult to face by anyone, especially a teenager.
Inflicting damage deliberately on oneself goes against all the instincts of survival. Any behaviour that causes harm or injury to someone as a way to deal with difficult emotions can be seen as self-harm.
Recent studies show that teenagers have high psychological and physiological reactions to the sight of blood. Most teenagers feel terrible at the sight of blood, or when they get a wound. The pain intensifies sadness, anger, anxiety, etc. However, this is not the case with self-harming teenagers. In fact, they feel something completely different, they feel a calm sensation when they view blood. The distinctive brain response of feeling calm when they are inflicted with pain is the underlying cause of self-harm.
Many teenagers perform the act of self-harm to diminish any sort of psychological pain, they hurt themselves often because they don't know what else to do and don't feel like they have any other options. Talking to someone you trust or a healthcare professional can help you find other options for coping with the emotional pain you are feeling. There can be multiple reasons why one may self-harm but these are some of the most common ones:
1. To express their pain
Some people that self-harm are not very good with communicating how they feel and this can often lead them to resort to methods like self-harm to show what they are feeling. There are many reasons why they might not be able to communicate their emotions; it could be that they never learned how to, the experiences that caused them to self-harm were too overwhelming to talk about, or they just might not be good with words.
It is important to note that when talking to someone who does self-harm, we mustn’t force them to open up about why they feel a certain way. As they find difficulty with communicating, it can lead them to become more frustrated about how they are unable to talk about it as much as they might want to. Additionally, in cases related to trauma, people might not want to talk about their experiences as it might bring back the pain and that might be more than they can handle.
So since they can't express it verbally, they resort to expressing it physically. Some of them do this to draw attention to themselves, like a call for help, and some might just be doing it to understand the pain better themselves.
2. To punish themselves
Another reason why people turn to self-harm as a method of coping is because they feel like they need to be punished, and if nobody will do it then they will. This reason is often for people that have suffered physical abuse, but that isn't always the case. When one is abused, especially at an early age (which is not uncommon), they begin to believe that the abuser was right, and they begin to look at themselves in the same way that the abuser did. This is known as introjection, which is “the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others”.
This leads to the formation of thoughts related to unworthiness, lack of self-respect, etc. to get into their minds, and eventually causes them to harm themselves. It is important to note that they don’t always look at themselves this way, but when they get overwhelmed, the introjected perspective takes over and leads them to attempt to punish themselves, most commonly through self-harm.
3. To experience euphoria
Euphoria - a feeling of well-being or elation
People that self-harm often report feelings of euphoria or bliss right after the act is done. This can be connected to the feelings after activities such as working out - you are in a state of “bliss” temporarily after the completion of the workout. A few people that self-harm feels the same way after they have harmed themselves and this feeling can get quite addictive. They remember how they felt right after and try to recreate that feeling.
4. To distract themselves or regain control over themselves
People, sometimes self-harm to feel a subjective sense of control over thoughts and emotions. What is meant by a subjective sense of control is that often people find their thoughts to be intrusive in nature and hence resorting to self-harm, would be an emotion or sensation that they are able to inflict upon themselves by choice. Seizing this control involves shifting the focus from their troubling thoughts and emotions to something that the person often deems as less troubling. It can also serve as a distraction since the sensation of pain can override the trauma they are feeling.
5. To release tension
This is closely related to the previous one of regaining control and/or distracting themselves, and these reasons often overlap. Sometimes aspects of an individual's trauma may build up a state of tension or arousal which often motivates the individual to do something to try and reduce this tension or arousal. Self-harm can apparently serve as a tension-reducing act. The tension a person may feel may not just be from the built-up thoughts present in their mind but also can be from external factors. Such as people pressuring them to talk about it and not giving them space to heal from their trauma. These scenarios can be frustrating and again build up a state of tension in the person.
6. Feel some sensation when they are numb or dissociated
A person who has suffered through a great deal of trauma sometimes copes by dissociating. Dissociation is a mental and emotional state where the normal unitary experience of consciousness gets chopped up into disconnected parts. So a person who dissociates may not be able to recall a painful event because through the process of dissociation they were able to store the painful memory in a section of their mind that the rest of themselves don't know how to find. In some cases of dissociation the memory itself isn't hidden but rather the emotions felt during that painful event are detached from the memory and hidden. This means that the person is able to recall the event, but rather than reliving it they watch it unfold in front of them as though it were a movie. We all know that it is painful to feel emotions but what we don't realise is that it is also painful to not feel anything at all. By self-harming, they are able to generate a strong sensation that is capable of bringing them back to feeling something again.
It is important to note that there are more reasons, and everybody is going through their own journey. Not everybody has the same reasons as the ones listed here, and the most we can do is be there for the person, and let them know that they are valued and loved and that they do not need to do this to themselves. But again, we mustn't force them to talk about it if they do not want to, as that could frustrate them.
People tend to correlate self-harm and suicide however this is not always the case. For many, self-harm is about trying to cope with difficult feelings and circumstances. Some people have described it is a way of staying alive and surviving these difficulties, almost like an alternative to suicide. However, some people who self-harm can feel suicidal and might attempt to take their own life, which is why it must always be taken seriously.
Another tendency people have is to categorise self-harm as a form of attention-seeking, in a way it is correct. To some people self-harming may be their cry for help, although when people say attention-seeking it is almost always referred to with its negative connotation. We must realise that self-harm often feels like an individual's only choice and it can be prevented by opening up to a professional, or even friends and family, about the urge to self-harm. When a person is called attention-seeking for self-harming they tend to clam up further and isolate themselves, which could significantly deteriorate their mental health.
We are in the 21st century and self-harm is still very prevalent in our society, and we as individuals need to help and support those who face these difficulties. Many believe they won’t make a difference, but just the idea of someone being present at the time of difficulty would be enough. One of the most important things to do as fellow teenagers is to accept. “I would wear full sleeve shirts even when it was a burning hot summer day, just to avoid the glances I got at my arm.” We need to normalise scars, and instead of being judgemental, we need to stand up for each other.
Writers: Maya Kale, Rhea Rangarajan, Sarah Samad
Illustrator: Rhea Rangarajan