Approximately 70% of adults in the United States report experiencing at least one traumatic episode at some point in their lives. In fact, trauma remains a risk factor for nearly all mental health issues. If untreated, complex trauma can seriously impact a person’s overall well-being.
What Do We Know About the Relationship Between Self-Harm and Trauma?
Unfortunately, self-harm and trauma can go hand in hand. When someone endures trauma, they might struggle to understand or cope with their emotions afterward. They might self-harm to suppress painful memories, release pain, or punish themselves.
Understanding How Trauma Impacts Mental Health
Trauma compromises someone’s sense of safety. Many trauma survivors experience intense feelings related to sadness, fear, hopelessness, and shame. They may also experience other related symptoms, including:
- Panic attacks
- Appetite issues
- Interpersonal problems
- Withdrawal from friends and/or family
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Racing thoughts
- Anhedonia (lack of pleasure in usual activities)
- Suicidal thoughts
Sometimes these symptoms occur just after the event and decrease on their own. However, in cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these symptoms may persist for several months or years. Research indicates that approximately 7–8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD during their lifetime.
While each person responds to trauma differently, it can undoubtedly impact every area of someone’s functioning. Trauma can disrupt their self-esteem, affect the quality of their relationships, and also impact work and school performance.
What Do We Know About Self-Harm and Trauma?
There is a strong relationship between the two issues, in that any history of trauma seems to be a significant risk factor for self-harm. One study found that 71.3% of all participants who struggled with self-harm also reported a history of childhood abuse.
As mentioned, trauma is also a risk factor for adolescent or adult mental health issues. People who self-harm often struggle with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance use disorders. Unfortunately, these issues can reinforce one another. The more someone engages in self-harm, the more pronounced their mental health issues might become. Similarly, the more someone struggles with their mental health, the more they may want to engage in self-harm to cope.
Additionally, self-harm often serves as a buffer to manage symptoms related to trauma. Sometimes people feel emotions so intensely that self-harm acts to redirect the emotional pain to a more physical one. Other times, people report feeling nothing at all. Therefore, self-harm breaks through that numbness by creating sensations.
That said, these strategies do not work. Self-harm tends to trigger more pronounced levels of shame, fear, and sadness. Moreover, it doesn’t make the individual forget the traumatic events, it may simply pause the recall for a moment. This means that self-harm often delays trauma recovery.
It’s no secret that trauma recovery is complex and multifaceted. Individuals must learn to live in the present, regardless of what happened to them in the past.
The treatment of self-harm and trauma typically entails a comprehensive analysis of someone’s mental health history, recall and reconciliation of past events, and consistent practice of alternative coping skills.
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- How to Manage Trauma. (n.d.). https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Trauma-infographic.pdf?daf=375ateTbd56
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US. (2014). Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Nih.Gov; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/#:~:text=Delayed%20responses%20to%20trauma%20can,with%20the%20trauma%2C%20even%20remotely.
- VA.gov | Veterans Affairs. (2014). Va.Gov. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp