Substance Use

Is Self-Harm An Addiction?

self-harm scars on arm

Table of Contents

Get Help Now

check insurance
Check your insurance by using our Online Form
call us
Talk to someone now.
Call (855) 430-9439

The question of whether self-harm can be classified as an addiction involves understanding the complex relationship between mental health and destructive behaviors. Self-harm, which includes actions like cutting, burning, or other forms of intentional self-injury, is often considered a coping mechanism rather than a substance-based addiction.

However, the repetitive nature of self-harm and the reliance on these actions to cope with emotional pain raise important questions about addictive tendencies.

Below, we learn the psychological aspects of self-harm or self-injury, examining whether it shares similarities with substance addiction and how individuals grappling with self-harm can find support and healthier coping mechanisms. 

Understanding this issue is essential for creating effective interventions and fostering a compassionate approach to mental health challenges and negative emotions with self-harming behaviors.

Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us

What Is Self-Harm All About?

Self-harm — or “non-suicidal self-injury,” to use the clinical term — involves intentionally hurting yourself. Despite its prevalence, the topic can make people uncomfortable talking about it. One of the most common forms of self-harm is cutting oneself, usually with a razor blade or sharp knife. (1)

Others hit or burn themselves on purpose. The physical effects of self-harm can be relatively mild, such as scratches and bruises. Or they can be much more serious, including wounds and broken bones.

It may sound disturbing to those who don’t engage in it, but at its core, self-harm is all about emotional distress. Harming oneself physically becomes a way of channeling difficult emotions such as anger, worry, and sadness.

Unlike pain under normal circumstances, the pain caused by the harm can feel like a release. For those who feel an unpleasant emotional numbness, physical pain allows them to feel anything at all. (1)

Potential Causes of Self-Harm

Exploring the many reasons behind self-harm reveals a better understanding of the intricate dynamics that contribute to this coping mechanism: (2) (3)

  1. Emotional Distress: Profound emotions, such as overwhelming sadness, searing anger, or persistent frustration, can impel individuals to seek relief through self-harming behaviors. The act becomes a desperate attempt to manage or articulate the insurmountable internal turmoil.
  2. Unresolved Trauma: Traumatic experiences, be it from combat, abuse, or tumultuous relationships, create a profound sense of powerlessness. This can lead individuals to utilize self-harm as a way to reclaim control over their bodies and emotions. (4) Addressing unresolved trauma becomes an imperative step in preventing and managing self-harming tendencies.
  3. Mental Health Conditions: Those contending with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder may view self-harm as a coping mechanism. The internal struggles associated with these conditions make self-harm appear as a temporary relief or a means to regain control. (5) Treating the underlying mental health issues is crucial for reducing the risk of self-harm.
  4. Social Factors: Isolation, bullying, or an overwhelming sense of disconnection from others can intensify the risk of self-harm. Building supportive social connections, fostering a sense of belonging, and addressing feelings of isolation are pivotal preventive measures against the inclination for self-harm.
  5. Coping Mechanism: Self-harm often emerges as a maladaptive coping mechanism, providing a fleeting escape from intense emotional distress. Encouraging the cultivation of healthier coping strategies, such as mindfulness, therapeutic interventions, and alternative outlets for self-expression, is paramount for breaking the cycle of self-harm and promoting enduring emotional well-being.

Approaching the understanding of self-harm requires empathy and a judgment-free perspective. Recognizing that a comprehensive and supportive approach, including professional assistance, is key for effectively addressing these intricate causes ensures a path toward healthier coping mechanisms and emotional resilience.

Facts About Self-Harm

A study from the American Psychological Association suggests self-harm is surprisingly common. (6)

  • As many as 55 percent of those who self-harm also have eating disorders
  • Young people who were bullied are more likely to report-self-harm than those who have not
  • 15 percent of college students and 17 percent of teenagers have engaged in some form of self-harm at least once
  • Approximately 33 percent of study participants report having hurt themselves so badly, they should have sought medical attention; of those, only 5 percent actually did see medical attention
  • At least 35 percent of those who self-harm are male, although that number may be larger due to underreporting
  • About 47 percent of women who identify as bisexual have self-harmed; men who identify as gay or bisexual are more likely to have self-harmed than straight men

Self-harm can take place at any stage of life, although it’s most prevalent among adolescents and young adults. Also, self-harm is not a mental illness on its own and is not “diagnosable.” However, it’s a powerful indication of emotional dysfunction and the need for help. (7)

It’s important to remember that the acts of self-harm are intended to cause pain, but not death. However, self-harm is an indicator of suicidal behavior later in life. Drug and alcohol use can make self-harm worse and can lead to injuries that are more severe than originally intended.

Self-harm is strongly associated with:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma/PTSD
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Eating disorders (8)

Is Self Harm Considered Addictive Behavior?

Self-harm, often marked by deliberate injury to oneself, is a complex behavior that involves a range of emotional and psychological factors. While it may not fit the traditional definition of addiction, there are instances where self-harm can become a repetitive and compulsive behavior, mirroring addictive patterns. (9)

Individuals engaging in self-harm might experience a temporary sense of relief or release, leading to a cyclic pattern that can be challenging to break. 

While not classified as substance addiction, the repetitive nature of self-harm underscores the need for professional intervention and support to address underlying emotional distress and promote healthier coping mechanisms.

Why Is Self-Harming Addictive?

Self-harming can become addictive for several reasons, often rooted in complex emotional and psychological factors. Let’s take a closer look at some of the main reasons self-harming is addictive.

  1. Initiation as a Coping Mechanism for Temporary Relief: The look into self-harm often begins as a coping mechanism, providing individuals with a fleeting escape from overwhelming emotions. This initial response, seeking temporary relief or dopamine, becomes a cornerstone in the intricate evolution of addiction. (10)
  2. Brain Adaptation and the Role in Stress Management: With repeated instances of self-harm, the brain undergoes adaptation, integrating the act as a stress management tool. This adaptation deepens the connection between the act and emotional distress, contributing significantly to the complexities of the addictive pattern.
  3. Endorphins, Sensations, and the Reinforcing Cycle: The physical sensations accompanying self-harm, including the release of endorphins, play a vital role in the addictive nature. Endorphins, acting as natural pain relievers, establish a reinforcing cycle that becomes integral to the addictive process, adding layers to the complexity. (11)
  4. Distorted Control Dynamics and Self-Punishment: The intricate dance between low self-esteem and self-harm leads to a distorted sense of control, with the act serving as a form of self-punishment. These psychological dynamics intertwine, deepening the complexities of the addictive relationship.
  5. Exploring Underlying Emotional and Psychological Factors: The roots of self-harm addiction touch on a huge area of underlying emotional and psychological factors. Some individuals that self harm may have co-occurring disorders such as bipolar disorder, or mood disorders. An in-depth exploration of these factors is essential for a holistic understanding, providing a nuanced approach to intervention and recovery.
  6. Professional Intervention – A Guiding Light in Recovery: The critical step of breaking the cycle of self-harm demands professional intervention. Therapists and counselors armed with expertise serve as guiding lights, offering insights and strategies tailored to address the unique root causes in each individual.
  7. Holistic Coping Mechanisms as the Cornerstone of Recovery: True recovery extends beyond the cessation of self-harm; it involves the intentional development of holistic coping mechanisms. This encompasses cultivating healthier ways to manage stress, express emotions, and navigate the myriad challenges life presents.
  8. Building Support Networks: The creation of a robust support network stands as a fundamental pillar in the recovery journey. Friends, family, and support groups contribute to a sense of belonging, providing understanding and unwavering encouragement throughout the intricacies of the recovery process.
  9. Mindfulness Practices for Emotional Regulation: Integrating mindfulness practices and emotional regulation techniques becomes a pivotal aspect of the recovery journey. These tools empower individuals to be present in the moment, gain a profound understanding of their emotions, and respond in healthier, more adaptive ways.
  10. Personalized Recovery Plans: Recognizing and respecting the uniqueness of each individual’s journey, the collaborative creation of personalized recovery plans becomes most important. This ensures that interventions are effective and aligned with specific needs, addiction treatments, and circumstances, contributing to a more enriched recovery experience.

In unraveling the multifaceted layers of self-harm addiction, this comprehensive exploration aims to provide a deeper understanding of the intricate dynamics at play.

Can Self-Harm Be Treated?

Yes, self-harm can be treated. Getting better takes a multifaceted approach that addresses the underlying emotional, psychological, and social factors contributing to self-harming behaviors. 

Seeking professional help, such as specific therapies or counseling, is a huge step in understanding and managing the root causes of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or mental disorders. Dealing with trauma and any underlying issues could stop the need to self-harm. 

Therapists work with individuals through mental health treatment to develop healthier coping mechanisms, foster emotional resilience, and create a supportive environment for sustainable recovery. 

Additionally, having strong connections with a supportive network of friends, family, or support groups can assist with professional intervention. This works on providing ongoing encouragement and reinforcement throughout the healing process.

Is There Self-harm Recovery and Relapse?

Yes, self-harm recovery is possible, but it’s essential to recognize that the process may involve setbacks, commonly known as relapses. Recovery from self-harm is not a linear process; individuals may experience progress followed by periods of struggle. (12)

Those on the path to recovery and family members involved must understand that relapse doesn’t diminish their progress or worth. Instead, it signals to reevaluate coping mechanisms and seek additional support. 

Developing resilience, building a strong support system, and engaging in therapeutic interventions are integral parts of the self-harm recovery process.

Recognizing the triggers, understanding emotions, and establishing healthier coping mechanisms contribute to long-term recovery. Professional help, such as therapy and counseling, plays a key role in guiding individuals through the challenges of self-harm recovery and minimizing the risk of relapse.

Effective Ways to Deal with Stress

Managing stress requires a diverse approach, using different strategies to address various aspects of well-being. 

Let’s take a closer look at effective ways to handle stress, providing a detailed understanding of each method:

  1. Mindfulness and Meditation: Embrace mindfulness and meditation not just as stress management tools but as profound gateways to self-understanding. These practices involve immersing yourself in the present moment, utilizing techniques like deep breathing to calm the mind and foster relaxation. Allow the rhythmic cadence of breath to be a therapeutic symphony, guiding you to a state of profound tranquility.
  2. Physical Activity: Elevate physical activity beyond a routine by considering it a transformative journey of self-discovery. Engaging in activities such as walking, jogging, or playing sports not only enhances physical health but also releases endorphins, the brain’s natural mood lifters. Let each movement become a celebration of the body’s resilience and a conduit for stress relief.
  3. Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Uncover the intricate interplay between lifestyle choices and mental equilibrium. Delve into the realm of mindful eating, where each nutrient-dense bite becomes a gesture of self-care. Acknowledge sleep not merely as a necessity but as a sanctuary, where the mind rejuvenates, fortifying the emotional armor against stressors.
  4. Effective Time Management: Transform time management into an art of intentional living. Break down tasks not only for efficiency but as an exercise in mindful presence. Each step becomes a celebration, a conscious act that defies the rush and chaos often associated with time constraints.
  5. Social Connections: Explore the richness of social connections as more than networks but as anchors of emotional well-being. Dedicate time not merely to be present but to truly connect, forging bonds that stand as resilient pillars amid life’s storms.
  6. Expressive Writing: Elevate expressive writing from a cathartic practice to a form of literary introspection. Each written word becomes a brushstroke on the canvas of self-awareness, exploring not only the challenges but also the triumphs, fostering a narrative that embraces resilience.
  7. Mind-Body Techniques: Immerse in mind-body practices, not merely as routines but as sacred rituals of self-care. Whether practicing yoga or progressive muscle relaxation, each movement becomes an ode to the harmonious coexistence of mental and physical well-being.
  8. Limiting Stimulants: Transform the act of limiting stimulants from a health choice to a mindful endeavor. Each sip of water becomes a moment of hydration, a conscious choice that aligns with the body’s needs, embodying the philosophy of balanced living.
  9. Seeking Professional Support: Embrace seeking professional support not as a sign of weakness but as an empowering step towards holistic well-being. Therapy becomes a journey of self-discovery, equipping individuals with tools that transcend the immediate and extend into a resilient future.
  10. Hobbies and Creativity: Redefine hobbies and creativity as more than pastimes; view them as sanctuaries of self-expression. Engage in activities not merely for enjoyment but as avenues to tap into the boundless reservoirs of creativity that reside within.
  11. Setting Boundaries: Elevate the act of setting boundaries from a practical necessity to a profound act of self-love. Each boundary becomes a declaration of personal space, fostering an environment where balance and well-being can flourish.
  12. Learning Relaxation Techniques: Immerse in relaxation techniques as more than stress relief but as a journey into the depths of tranquility. Each practice, be it guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation, becomes a conscious step towards fostering a sanctuary of calm within.
  13. Mindful Breathing Exercises: Engage in mindful breathing exercises not as routines but as sacred moments of self-connection. Each breath becomes an opportunity to center oneself amidst the chaos, cultivating an internal oasis of calm.
  14. Positive Affirmations: Embrace positive affirmations not merely as statements but as mantras of empowerment. Repeated daily, they become the building blocks of a resilient mindset, fortifying the psyche against the ebb and flow of life’s challenges.

By implementing this enriched approach to stress management, individuals can find immediate relief and invest in long-term well-being without self-injurious behavior. It becomes a transformative journey, guiding towards a life imbued with resilience, mindfulness, and an enduring sense of balance, allowing for an exploration of the profound intricacies of well-being.

Are You Ready To Get Help and Gain Coping Skills?

If you find yourself on the path to seeking help for self-harm recovery or even drug abuse and potential relapse, it’s a significant and courageous step toward a healthier future. Recognizing the need for assistance is the first step of the healing journey.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to face these challenges alone. Reaching out for support is a sign of strength. Consider talking to a mental health professional, counselor, or therapist who can provide specific guidance and advice to your unique situation, whatever it may be.

Building a strong support network of friends and family is also vital in lasting recovery.

Get The Help You Need Today To Combat Self-Harm and Substance Abuse

Zinnia Health is well-trained in treating emotional disorders like self-harm, as well as substance use disorders. You don’t need to worry about being judged or made to feel embarrassed. We understand self-harm is a way of avoiding difficult emotions. We can help you discover a better, more effective way of addressing them. 

You may have a dual diagnosis of co-occurring mental health conditions that are contributing to your self-harm. If that’s the case and we believe medication can help, our clinical team will discuss it with you. Also, evidence-based therapy has demonstrated success in addressing self-harm.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, our health staff will provide you with the tools to control your negative emotions rather than allowing them to control you. Contact us today at (855) 430-9439 to learn more about our programs and how we can help get you started on your recovery journey.


Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us