Can Self-Harm Be Addictive?

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As someone with Complex PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder I, unfortunately, due to two alters which are intent on my self-destruction self-harm frequently. My psychiatrist commented to me the other day that it can be addictive. I was quiet taken aback when he said that so decided to do some research into it and discover that people often say they’re addicted to self-injury. Considering how hard it is to resist hurting yourself when triggered, it’s not surprising to hear this word. But is ‘addiction’ the right term?

Definition

As self-injury is a behaviour, it can’t be physically addictive. Physical addiction occurs when the body becomes tolerant of a substance, and reacts negatively when that substance is withdrawn. Physical addiction occurs with substances such as nicotine and heroin. Behaviours are not physically addictive.

“Self-injury is a coping mechanism. An individual harms their physical self to deal with emotional pain, or to break feelings of numbness by arousing sensation.”

Some people will remind you that the endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and even cortisone, that the body releases when experiencing pain, injury, exercise, and happiness, can be addictive. But these biochemicals are natural – part of the bodies normal response to everyday occurrences.

Non-addictive drugs, such as cannabis, may create a psychological reliance over time. This isn’t a physical addiction, but a craving. This could be called a psychological addiction, and self-injury could also be thought of in this way.

Physical v psychological addiction

Physical addiction is uncontrollable. A person who is denied a substance to which they are physically addicted will have no control over their body’s reactions.

Psychological addiction on the other hand is controllable, and can be managed. It may feel awful, and those feelings are valid, but it’s a different to physical dependency.

 

A damaging term

Use of the word ‘addiction’ can be damaging for someone who self-injures. The term serves to remove control, responsibility, and choice. It clouds the difference between need and desire. It can be used as an excuse; a word that dismisses responsibility. This might disrespect the effort of someone who is learning new ways of coping and moving away from self-injury.

Self-injury is difficult to move away from, and telling someone that they’re addicted can validate their desperate desire to hurt themselves to feel better. ‘Addiction’, in relation to self-injury has complicated inferences that are unhelpful to an individual wanting to make new choices and pursue recovery.

Reliance

Although not physically addictive, self-injury is certainly something that people can become reliant on over time.

They may self-injure more frequently, more severely, and might even get triggered more often though a relatively normal day. It may become an action that a person relies upon simply to get through the day. Self-injury can become a habit that is extremely difficult to break.

Despite psychological reliance being very different to a physical addiction, some of the psychological difficulties are the same. The difference is that with reliance, a person has control over their choices, actions, and reactions, (even when they feel they don’t), which gives greater hope for recovery.

Recovery

One of the first steps on the journey towards moving away from self-injury is acceptance of responsibility and choice. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, and each act of self-injury is a choice. By accepting these statements, a person can empower themselves to regain control of their behaviours and begin to make healthier choices.

With the right support, anyone who is reliant on self-injury but doesn’t want to be, can learn new coping methods and break free from the chains of reliance. LifeSIGNS is here to guide and support you along the way.

Self-injury can occur during psychosis without the person being in full control of their actions. But this is a serious psychological condition that is bigger than the self-injury itself, and professional help must be sought.

4 comments

    • Hi Savannah

      What you cite is a common experience and is very difficult for you. It makes it particularly hard to discontinue the self-harm cycle as feeling something even though it is self-harm is seen as better than feeling nothing. I hope you have a good therapist who can help you see an alternative way of dealing with your feelings. EMDR is particularly good for dealing with self-harm. All the best for your future. Erin

  1. Thank you. I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was 13 (20+ years) and have not found jr.to be a lot of help. I’ve always understood why I do it I just can’t find a healthy coping mechanism to replace it, so I try my hardest to avoid certain triggers. I do it because I either feel nothing or too much at once after a crisis.

    • Hi Savannah Yes self-harm is most definitely a coping mechanism and once you find it works for you it is really hard to stop it. Thanks for commenting. I really appreciate it. Hope the article was of some help. All the best for the future. Erin

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin