Monday, September 23, 2013

Can Self-Harm Be Considered an Addiction?

When most people think of the term 'addiction', what comes to mind is generally related to drugs or alcohol, but certainly not self-harm. The official definition of addiction is a compulsive drug craving and use, despite adverse consequences. Though this definition mentions drugs specifically, I believe self-harm can be considered an addiction, as they both share many of the same qualities. Some of these qualities include:

1. Emotional Triggers- Before actually trying drugs or alcohol or attempting self-harm, a significant event, or series of events, may occur, evoking a strong emotional response. Though this may not always be as true for drugs or alcohol, I believe this is often true for self-harm. Self-harm generally involves a build up of stressful events; a person doesn't merely wake up one day and decide to begin harming themselves. While there may be a build up of certain stressful events, there is usually one particular pivotal event that drives a person past of what they feel they can handle, which leads them to try out self-harming.

2. Tolerance- After a person begins self harming or using, a form of tolerance may develop. When relating to drugs or alcohol, the official definition of tolerance is a diminishing effect with regular use of the same dose of a drug, requiring the user to take larger and larger doses before experiencing the drug's effect. This can also apply to self-harm. After self-harming, people may incorporate this behavior into their coping mechanisms. As stressful events continue to arise, they may continually and increasingly turn to self-harm as their way of relief or escape. Soon the person may find that self-harming once a week is not enough to receive the same amount of relief, so they decide to increase their frequency and intensity of self-harm. This escalation of use aligns with definition of tolerance.

3. Dependence- In relation to addiction, there are two forms of dependence; physical and psychological. Physical dependence can be defined as a physiological need for a drug, marked by unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued. Psychological dependence on the other hand, can be defined as a psychological or mental need to use a drug to relieve negative emotions. In regards to self-harm, physical dependence comes from a chemical called dopamine that is released in our brains when we are hurt. For some people this release of dopamine can have a soothing affect. However, just like with any other chemical, our bodies can get accustomed to this release of dopamine and might develop a higher tolerance. This means that the body might need to experience a higher degree of damage or pain to get the same soothing affect. When a person has gotten to this point, they also may experience symptoms of withdrawal that manifest through anxiety. Psychological dependence, also stems off of tolerance. In the tolerance phase, people who self-harm may still have other coping methods they can use as alternatives to self-harm. However, once a person who self-harms reaches psychological dependence, self-harm becomes their primary way to relieve stress or pain and other methods of coping may become secondary. A person might feel like they need self harm to keep going or to avoid this anxiety. 

4. Denial- In some addictions, not all, but some, there is comes a point of denial. This may be denial within the user's self or with another person. Denial may be defined as the outright refusal that something has occurred or is occurring. Often when dealing with addictions, people will deny they have an addiction and claim that they don't have a problem or could stop anytime. Denial can occur for a variety of reasons, whether it be in relation to alcohol, drugs, or self-harm. These reasons of denial may include not wanting to appear weak; not wanting to lose their pride, either in the user's own eyes or in the eyes of their friends and family; not wanting to lose their outlet for stress or anxiety; or simply because they don't want help or don't recognize they have a problem.

5. Withdrawal- Though withdrawal is certainly more related to substances, in some way it can relate to self- harm. Withdrawal can be defined as the discomfort and distress that follow discontinuing the use of an addictive drug. As the definition states, there is discomfort and distress which follow the addictive behaviors. After stopping self-harm, some degree of withdrawal may ensue. Like others trying to recover from an addiction, those who have previously self-harmed may feel the urge to self-harm because it was once their primary coping mechanism. Withdrawal really depends on the severity of the addiction with drugs, alcohol, and self-harm. If the addiction is severe, the person trying to recover may even feel lost. Self-harm, drugs, or alcohol often become a big part of people's identities. Therefore, once they have stopped or are trying to stop, they not only struggle with the urges to continue their use to cope, but they also may need to rediscover who they are outside of their addiction.

Addiction is different for everyone. When recovering, some may need extensive therapy or medication. Others may be able to overcome their addiction on their own when they find a substantial incentive or helpful support system. When experiencing addiction, too many people believe there is no way out and life will simply never get better- "this is just how it's going to be and this is who I am now." But the truth is, addiction doesn't define you as a person. Addiction doesn't make you the person you are. You are more than your addiction. You might be funny, opinionated, quiet, outgoing, loud, excitable, adventurous, and so much more; but you are not simply and only an "addict."

If you are experiencing an addiction or hoping to go into recovery, it is important to keep in mind that circumstances can change. You are not your addiction, there are so many more amazing qualities that you have that people want to know about!

Also, be patient and gentle with yourself. Our addictions are there for a reason. They may have been, or still are, serving a purpose for us. Don't underestimate this purpose and don't discount your own strength in finding a way to cope. Dealing with life is hard and we all find our own ways to do it.

Here are some additional links for addiction and self-harm if you feel that you need help, but may not know where to look:

Teen Link: -Chat is available Mon., Tues., and Thurs. from 6PM to 10PM (PST)
 1-866-TEENLINK (866-833-6546) -Available from 6PM to 10PM daily (PST)
Washington State Recovery Helpline:
1-866-789-1511 -available 24 hours a day
NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse for teens):
Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration: -Resource for youth dealing with a variety of issues, such as addiction, anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders, self-harm, grief, relationships, school pressures, etc.
Self Injury Outreach and Support:
SAFE Alternatives: -An organization working to help end self-harm


  1. It is very helpful for me as well as others. So thanks for posting this blog.

  2. Nice post!! Very happy to know about self-harm addiction. I have been visiting suboxone treatment virginia center for my addiction treatment and very happy to get best results in just two weeks. Found their counseling also helpful and effective in changing my life.