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5 Minutes

Is Self-Harm an Addiction

Explore the complexities of behavioral addictions, including self-harm and substance abuse, and learn about the warning signs and symptoms. Understand the importance of seeking professional help to address these issues and develop healthier coping strategies for a better quality of life.
Infographic of self harm and addiction symptoms
Written by
Bloom Clinical Care Counselling and Therapy Services
March 12, 2023

Behavioral addictions such as gambling, eating disorders, and self-harm are becoming very common nowadays. These types of behavioral addictions share several characteristics with substance addictions. These underpinnings include a build-up of tolerance, varying degrees of withdrawal, and relapse. Recent research suggests that non-suicidal self-injury and suicidal behaviours can also be viewed as an addiction.

No matter who you are, people from all corners of the globe encounter difficult emotions, and each individual manages them differently. While some people can deal with difficult circumstances and the resulting emotions in healthier ways, more often than not, people engage in self-destructive or unhealthy mechanisms. It is a bitter truth that most people tend to be attracted to coping skills that aren't actually healthy for them. 

Conversely, healthy habits are a far more rewarding course of action. However, being healthy is generally more complex and less enjoyable. Even though self-destructive or unhealthy mechanisms are easier and more pleasurable to engage in, it can have more serious consequences over a period of time. 

In some tragic cases, self-harming behaviour could end up being fatal. One of the most common methods of self-harm is "cutting." This is when an individual chooses to self-harm by making numerous slits or cuts on their body. 

Most commonly, individuals do this on their wrists or arms, putting themselves at risk of injuring major blood vessels and causing massive blood loss or even death. Substance use and self-harm are among the most common hazardous coping mechanisms seen within individuals in a clinical setting.

What is Self-Harm?

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), self-harm methods are used by those dealing with negative thoughts or feelings. CMHA further states that self-harm is not a method individuals use to end their lives but a coping mechanism to survive such negative emotions.

Other ways people cause themselves physical pain include minor burn bruises on their bodies, hitting or punching themselves, and pulling out their hair. However (as mentioned above), numerous self-harm methods don't involve physical abuse. These are often seen in the form of substance use and behavioral changes. Most commonly, they are presented in the form of alcoholism, eating disorders, burying themselves in work, and avoiding previously pleasurable events. 

It is essential to understand that not all individuals who engage in self-injury are suicidal. Suicidal ideations and self-harm are two completely separate issues. However, it is possible for someone to accidentally self-harm to a degree where they sustain life-threatening injuries. 

This is particularly prevalent in the more severe forms of physical self-harm. However, the person might not have intended for fatal results. Most people who self-harm does so as a way to cope with difficulties and regain control over their lives. 

For example, imagine a scenario where you work hard every day. Yet, your supervisors and co-workers belittle, dismiss, or even pass you up for a well-deserved promotion. You arrive home from a stressful and frustrating day, and your partner doesn't respect your boundaries or validate your emotions. You find yourself in this perpetual never ending cycle where you constantly get pushed around and desperately crave little control over your life. 

Situations like these are common triggers for someone who finds themselves self-harming. The underlying reason behind self-harm is often a lack of control over life events. 

These triggers are not only derived from workplace burnout but rather a range of issues such as trauma, loss of a loved one, major life events, financial burdens, or academic burnout. To those experiencing these symptoms, self-harm distracts them from their present emotions. The feeling of pain in situations like these triggers the opioid systems in the brain, which research indicates is linked to feelings of pleasure and rewards. 

Self-Harm Addiction Behaviors

When behavioral addictions are mentioned, most people think of gambling, video games, or excessive shopping. In fact, most people wouldn't even factor self-harm into the equation. However, according to the American Addiction Centers, behavioral addictions are "the compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on the person's ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy and functional." Self-injury falls into this category for some people.

Symptoms and Warning Signs that Someone is Self-Harming or Abusing Substances

Most individuals will choose areas on their bodies that cannot be seen because they know what they do is something others will judge them for. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance to continuously keep watch for the following indicators of self-harm:

· Avoiding social settings

· Struggles in relationships

· Sharp objects kept on hand

· Scars, frequently found in patterns

· Frequent occurrences of "accidental injuries."

· Wearing long sleeves to cover up 

· Withdrawing from relationships (whether platonic or romantic)

· "Random" bruises, bite marks, burns or cuts on any part of the body

· Intense, unpredictable emotions and impulsive behaviors 

· Talk of worthlessness, helplessness or hopelessness

While not all people who self-harm will participate in substance use, it's common for some individuals to have a dual addiction to substances like drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse and self-harm present different methods of dealing with life's difficulties. Both offer a short-term escape, meaning people don't feel emotional pain for a while.

People in a great deal of anguish are the most likely to develop an addiction to either substance use, self-harm or both. No matter which develops first, it could be due to undiagnosed mental health struggles. 

The most common symptoms of substance abuse include:

· Major and rapid mood swings

· Dramatic weight gain or weight loss

· Concerning hygiene or cleanliness issues

· Lack of motivation or interest to take part in previously enjoyed activities

· Frequently making excuses to miss work or social gatherings

· Drastic shifts in eating or sleeping patterns

Reach Out to a Mental Health Professional

If you are concerned that someone you know and care about may be struggling with self-harm or substance abuse, seeking professional help is a good idea. Healthcare workers such as physicians, clinical social workers, psychologists, and licensed counselors are equipped with specialized training to help guide you to a better quality of life. While the support of friends and family is vital, professional help will allow for getting to the root of the problem and determining the best course of action for healthier coping strategies.  

We May be Able To Help You

At Bloom Clinical Care Counseling and Therapy Services, we are Social Workers registered with the OCSWSSW. We have  25+ years of experience in supporting people experiencing grief & bereavement, depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, low self-esteem, stress, relationship issues and other mental health challenges. We do not require any referrals and are always welcoming new clients.

If you are looking for therapists near you in Toronto, Bloom Clinical Care is located at 1200 Markham Road, Suite 306C, M1H 3C3. We also offer virtual therapy options by phone or video call across Ontario. Help is available, and we may be able to help

Struggling with you mental health? We may be able to help. Book a free consultation today.
Disclaimer: This article is solely intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as professional advice. The content of this article should not be used as a substitution to therapy, counselling, medical attention, or any kind of professional help. The author and Bloom Clinical Care Counseling and Therapy services strongly encourages readers to seek guidance from appropriate professionals if they are in need of assistance.

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