Self-Harm and Eating Disorders

self-harmApproximately 25 percent of individuals who suffer from eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia or Binge Eating Disorder also participate in self-harming behavior. In many cases, a loved one will first learn about the self-harming behavior and then learn that an eating disorder is also present.

Self-injury, also called self-harm, is the act of deliberately harming one’s own body, examples include cutting or burning. Self-injury is an unhealthy attempt to deal with emotional pain, intense feelings, anger and frustration. It is used to help cope with, block out or release built up feelings and emotions.  Self-harm should be viewed as a symptom of deeper unresolved issues.

Is self-harm the same as a suicide attempt?

For those dealing with an eating disorder self-harm is typically not meant as a suicide attempt. However, it is serious condition that requires assessment by a professional and indicates a need for psychological treatment.

While self-injury may bring a momentary sense of calm and a release of tension, it’s typically followed by guilt and shame as well as the return of painful emotions. Self-harm is often an escalation from previous behaviors and should be seen as an indicator of increased risk for the possibility of more serious and even potentially fatal self-aggressive actions.

What are signs and symptoms of self-harm?

  • Scars, such as from burns or cuts
  • Fresh cuts
  • Scratches, bruises or other wounds
  • Broken bones
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Claiming to have frequent accidents or mishaps
  • Spending a great deal of time alone
  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • Persistent questions about personal identity, such as “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?”
  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability

What are common forms of self-injury?

One of the most common forms of self-injury is cutting, which involves making cuts or severe scratches on different parts of the body with a sharp object. Most frequently, the arms, legs and front of the torso are the targets of self-injury because these areas can be easily reached and can easily be hidden under clothing. People who self-injure may use more than one method to harm themselves and may utilize any area of the body.

Other common forms of self-harm include:

  • Burning (with lit matches, cigarettes or hot sharp objects like knives)
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Breaking bones
  • Hitting or punching
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Head banging
  • Biting
  • Pulling out hair
  • Persistently picking at or interfering with wound healing

Because self-injury is often an impulsive act, becoming upset or angry, or having increased anxiety, can trigger an urge to self-harm.

Why do people engage in self-injury?

Even though there is the possibility that a self-inflicted injury may result in life-threatening damage, self-injury is not suicidal behavior. Although the person may not recognize the connection, SI usually occurs when facing what seems like overwhelming or distressing feelings. The reasons self-injurers give for this behavior vary:

  • Self-injury temporarily relieves intense feelings, pressure or anxiety
  • Self-injury provides a sense of being real, being alive – of feeling something.
  • Injuring oneself is a way to externalize internal emotional pain – to feel pain on the outside instead of the inside
  • Self-injury is a way to control and manage pain – unlike the pain experienced through physical or sexual abuse
  • Self-injury is a way to break emotional numbness (the self-anesthesia that allows someone to cut without feeling pain)
  • Self-abuse is self-soothing behavior for someone who does not have other means to calm intense emotions
  • Self-loathing – some self-injurers are punishing themselves for having strong feelings (which they were usually not allowed to express as children), or for a sense that somehow they are bad and undeserving (an outgrowth of abuse and a belief that it was deserved)
  • Self-injury followed by tending to wounds is a way to express self-care, to be self-nurturing, for someone who never learned how to do that in a more direct way
  • Harming oneself can be a way to draw attention to the need for help, to ask for assistance in an indirect way
  • Sometimes, self-injury is an attempt to affect others – to manipulate them, make them feel guilty or bad, make them care, or make them go away

What should I do if a loved one is self-harming?

If you or your loved one is actively self-harming, please seek the advice of a healthcare professional.

A trained professional can assist you as you work to overcome the self-harm habit, and can help you develop new coping techniques and strategies to stop self-harming, while also helping you get to the root of why you cut or hurt yourself.

Self-harm doesn’t occur in a vacuum or as a single issue. It’s an outward expression of inner conflict and pain. The path to overcoming self-harm includes identifying the core issues responsible for the self-harm, resolving those issues and the introduction of new coping mechanisms and life management skills.

If the person who is self-harming is a family member, especially if it is your child, it is important to realize that you will need to be prepared to address difficulties in the family. This is not about blame, but rather about learning ways of dealing with problems and communicating better that can help the whole family. When appropriate treatment is provided, full recovery from self-harm is possible.

Canopy Cove’s Christian Based Eating Disorder Treatment Programs offer compassionate, comprehensive treatment for females, males, adolescents, and adults, who are struggling with Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorders and Co-Existing Diabetes, Depression, and Anxiety. Equine-Assisted Therapy is an weekly part of the Recovery process at Canopy Cove.