The language of addiction has been going through an expansion in its application in more recent years. What was once a term applied specifically to alcoholism, and then to general substance abuse, has become associated with all sorts of behavioral addictions (gambling, shopping, eating, etc.). In some cases the expansion doesn’t make a lot of sense and tends to minimize the usefulness of the word. In other cases, however, it seems very appropriate. When applied to the habit of self-harm, addiction is the right word. There are three ways that self-harm parallel what we already know about addictive habits.
It might surprise you to learn that self-harm is an addictive habit. Perhaps, if you struggle with self-harm it might even make you angry to read such a comparison. Try to keep an open mind. The value of understanding self-harm rightly is that it can allow you to appropriately address the problem and find all the resources available to assist you in the fight against it. Addictions are hard to fight because they have layers of complexity and attachment to our lives. Knowing this will allow us to address all the corresponding factors. So, consider these three parallels as reasons that self-harm is an addictive habit.
First, both addictions and self-harm are pleasurable. Individuals who cut, or burn, or pluck, or punch have described a sort of psychological high that accompanies their pain. There is a rush – which can be both from the actual chemical changes resulting from the body’s response to pain, and/or also the psychological feelings that accompany a sense of being in control or giving into urges. Of course the pleasurable feelings subside and they are not always pleasurable, but the fact that anything so destructive could be remotely pleasurable suggests that we have created some type of habituated response that is impacting even our internal sense of pleasure and the release of endorphins in the brain.
Secondly, both addictions and self-harm become enslaving. Whatever pleasure is derived from self-harm, it is often followed by a sense of despair, guilt, and physical pain. Many sufferers have a love/hate relationship with their habit. They love it at times, and at other times desperately want to quit. Yet, many feel completely trapped in this cycle. What started out promising freedom becomes a terrible master. Long after it feels good, those who inflict self-harm find that they can’t stop. That is the lived experience of other addicted individuals as well.
Finally, both addictions and self-harm have patterns of tolerance and withdrawal. Within substance abuse an addiction is observed as individuals increasingly struggle to get the same high from the same type and amount of substances (tolerance). The same is found among those who self-harm. In order to get the same level of emotional relief, individuals must often heighten the gravity of their behavior. Furthermore, withdrawal is a common symptom of both addictive habits. The longer one goes without the preferred/abused substance in your system the greater the sensation of physical and psychological discomfort. Those who desire to self-harm and find that they are unable will see similar physiological and psychological responses. The areas most frequently harmed may feel tight, tingling, or painful. You may find that anxiety, tension, and agitation increase. You may even begin to sweat, tremble, and have similar physical responses to an inability to harm. You will also experience a powerful urge to harm yourself and a building urgency that demands attention. This is all a form of withdrawal not completely different from that of a drug addict.
There are other ways that self-harm and addictions parallel one another, but this gives us an important initial understanding of that equation. These parallels are worth mentioning because we want to have realistic expectations about the process of change. Addictive habits do not go away with ease, nor is the process of change as simple as making good choices. There is a lot involved in recovery and it will be necessary to have patience with the process, patience with oneself, and an understanding of all that may be involved. Self-harm can become an addictive habit. If you are willing to recognize this you can begin to move towards freedom. If you refuse to except this as a possibility you will only compound your struggles. Jesus tells us that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He tells the religious leaders of his day that it is only by admitting your are sick can you find a physician (Mark 2:17). Living in denial about the gravity, seriousness, or complexity of your struggle won’t help you. Acknowledging these dynamics, however, is a first step towards true recovery. Accept the truth, as hard as it may be, and you can begin to make progress.