My name is Andy and I have just completed an in-depth project exploring 26 adults’ personal experiences of using self-injury from childhood, throughout adolescence and into adulthood. The women and men who took part were aged between their late 20s and early 50s.

What follows is a very brief outline of several of the main findings, which I hope you find interesting.

To start with I noted that there is a large amount of research available that attempts to force our understanding of self-injury into a medical or clinical perspective. This research is useful to an extent, however it fails to grasp self-injury, as it really exists in the lives of many individuals. This is highlighted by the majority of those who took part in my study who describe their use of self-injury as not being directly associated with an illness, a disabling psychiatric or psychological condition. To the contrary, the use of self-injury provided a means to cope with (or as several said “…manage…”) highly distressing aspects of their lives and to maintain a level of normality!

The women and men explained how a wide range of factors prompted their use of self-injury, including:

  • Social factors e.g. difficulties in interacting with others
  • Emotional factors e.g. overwhelming emotional distress
  • Cognitive factors e.g. negative thoughts and memories
  • Physiological factors e.g. the need to feel physical pain, damage or to bleed
  • Communication factors e.g. being verbally discounted or ignored (nobody to listen)
  • Occupational factors e.g. having difficulty in education or in work demands/pressures
  • Behavioural factors e.g. using different forms of self-injury

*(Please note I have only used a few of the many examples described by those who took part)

These factors were found to vary according to the individual’s own unique set of experiences, circumstances and needs.

*** TRIGGER WARNING***

‘Be safe’ before reading further.

The actual use of either covert (secret) or overt (not hidden) self-injury became practiced over time. This was mainly based on the individuals’ developing their knowledge and understanding of how to safely cause minimal bodily damage with maximum effect (with no A+E visits). Several people described how they learnt to use a combination of covert and overt self-injury e.g. using self-injury to privately relieve unbearable / high levels of emotional distress and alternatively using self-injury as a form of non-verbal communication (signaling to others that they could no longer cope on their own).

Those who took part described a wide range of consequences from using self-injury, including:

  • Relief from overwhelming emotional and cognitive distress
  • Maintaining a persona (image that all is okay) in a social context
  • Relief from not being able to think or feel
  • Regulating (or stabilising) severe swings in mood
  • An alternative to communicating/expressing and sharing distressing thoughts and feelings with others.
  • Creating a sense of empowerment and control
  • Obtaining a nice/warm feeling (emotionally)
  • Using self-injury to create a self-care situation

… there were many other descriptions made – too many to mention in this summary.

It was identified that the prolonged use (over a number of years) of self-injury led to the development of multiple functions in the use of self-injury. It become a planned and carefully implemented activity, which in addition to coping with high levels of distress and/or dissociation, enabled the person to live, to survive, to continue, to feel strong, to be in control, to maintain their persona… etc…and for many prevented them from taking more serious / destructive actions and / or from becoming ill.

However, importantly those who did stop using self-injury described how (through their own efforts and the support of others) they experienced improved social condition, meaningful relationships, the use of alternative activities, and improved communication or expression of thoughts and feelings. Several people explained how utilising opportunities to talk was the most influential factor in reducing their use of self-injury. They were able to express outwardly their internal distress. Also, it was noted that writing poetry and / or a diary of thoughts and feelings helped with this process of expression.

For the majority of adults who took part in this project self-injury remains an option available to them – as one person said to me:

“…my self-injury is about me coping with the very difficult issues I face in my life and I don’t want to trouble others with all this stuff… it’s (self-injury) about living… it’s there if I need it…but I have learnt that it is a far better option to talk… and if I keep talking I won’t need to turn to it!”

This is a short summary of my research and I hope to write a more detailed account in the near future.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Bye for now. Andy Barton-Breck

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