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Most people are aware of other addictions, such as alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, gambling, and pornography. However, not many people are aware that self-harm can become an addictive behavior in certain individuals. Find out more in answering the question, “Is self-harm addictive?”

Woman with head in hands. Is self-harm addictive?

What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is a type of behavior where someone intentionally causes them self harm. Often, this behavior is mistakenly assumed to be a suicide attempt. However, this is not the case. A person who causes self-harm to themselves usually has no intention of ending their life. Instead, they find that causing self-harm can alleviate stress, pain, or trauma from a traumatic experience. While cutting oneself is one of the more commonly known forms of self-harm, there are others, including the following:

  • Pinching oneself
  • Pulling out one’s hair
  • Using cigarettes or fire to burn the skin
  • Scratching oneself
  • Deliberately picking at scabs
  • Poking one’s skin superficially
  • Spanking oneself
  • Hitting oneself

How Is Self-Harm Addictive?

When someone is not taught or does not fully understand how to deal with their emotions or a traumatic experience, it can lead them to look for a coping mechanism. While some people turn to alcohol or drugs, others can turn to self-harm.

Causing self-harm can cause an increase in various endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain. For example, the body can release an increase in dopamine and serotonin, both neurotransmitters that regulate mood and can bring about happiness, calmness, and pleasure. As a result, the brain remembers self-harm behavior as a positive experience. This reinforces the behavior and can lead to a person continuing to cause self-harm to themselves again because it made them feel better the last time they did it. So, until the person can address their emotions and learn positive coping mechanisms, they are more likely to continue to cause self-harm.

What Defines an Addictive Behavior?

Addictive behavior is generally defined as a disorder associated with motivation, memory, and reward without concern about the consequences of one’s actions. For example, with self-harm, the motivation is alleviating one’s pain. When one feels better after inflicting self-harm, it is stored in their memory.

The reward is an increase in endorphins and neurotransmitters that makes the person feel better about themselves. Therefore, when someone engages in self-harm regularly, it can become an addictive behavior.

Is There a Link Between Self-Harm and Substance Use Disorders?

Most people are surprised to learn there is a link between self-harm and substance use disorders. For example, the relief one experiences from self-harm can start to diminish as the body builds a tolerance to the behavior. As a result, the individual would need to inflict greater pain to achieve the desired effects.

This is similar to the tolerance the body builds to alcohol and drugs with substance use disorders. A person with a substance use disorder has to drink more or take larger amounts of drugs to experience the desired effects. Additionally, the two can overlap in teens and young adults and become a co-occurring condition. They may start experimenting with alcohol or drugs to enhance the effects of their self-harming behaviors.

Conversely, those that drink frequently or regularly use drugs can turn to self-harm when the effects of drinking or using drugs are no longer satisfying or fulfilling. In this case, the person may discover that drinking or using drugs and causing self-harm can cause them to experience an even more intense “high.”

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm Behaviors

It can be difficult to notice the signs and symptoms of self-harm behaviors as the individual often causes the self-harm in inconspicuous areas of their body. However, there are several signs and symptoms that can become apparent the more the individual continues to engage in self-harm, including:

  • The individual self-isolates for long periods
  • The individual withdraws socially from friends, activities, and family members
  • The individual always seems to have injuries or wounds
  • The individual wears long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even when it is hot outside
  • The individual experiences frequent mood swings, where they may seem sad and depressed and suddenly happy and upbeat
  • The individual feels uncomfortable around certain people, in specific locations, or at events
  • The individual may be considered a “loner” by their peers
  • The individual is associated with “new friends,” often others that also engage in self-harm
  • You discover knives, lighters, scissors, or other such objects that could be used to cause self-harm in unusual places in the home
  • You notice first aid supplies need replacing more frequently

How Is Self-Harm Addiction Treated?

Self-harm addiction is treated using similar approaches used to treat alcohol and substance use disorders. These often include using various forms of therapy to help the person uncover and identify the underlying causes, feelings, and emotions that led to self-harm.

During treatment, the person learns positive coping mechanisms to use when feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed. In cases where the person experienced a traumatic event, treatment programs involve helping them address that event and replace the negative emotions associated with it with positive ones.

Self-Harm Addiction Treatment in Dunwoody, GA

When you or someone you care about wants help for self-harm addiction, Southern Live Oak Wellness in Dunwoody, GA, is here to help. We provide a safe, supportive, and caring environment where you can take the first steps to recovery. Contact us today.

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