Teen Self Injury Treatment: Addressing the Endorphin Effect

As sad as it might sound, self injury can at times become a trend among teens. If a teen finds out that her friends are doing it, the clandestine quality to cutting might make it attractive to young adolescents. However, it’s not the trendy attraction to cutting that keeps them doing it; it’s the endorphins that get released. Adolescents are attracted to self injury because of the endorphin effect.

According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), self injury is inflicting direct harm to one’s own body, without the intention of committing suicide. It can include cutting, biting, scratching, burning, and bruising the skin. Teens might harm themselves as a way to feel physical pain, to create a lasting sign of distress, as a punishment for perceived failure, to release feelings, or to cope with strong emotions that might result from trauma or challenging past experiences. Using self harm as a coping mechanism for anxiety and other strong emotions is most common among teens and adults. The DSM recognizes that acts of self harm are not those that are socially sanctioned, such as body piercing or tattooing.

When adolescents cut or burn themselves, endorphins are secreted into the bloodstream and they often experience a numbing or pleasurable sensation. For some teens, cutting or harming their own body numbs any unpleasant thoughts and feelings and often a high comes with the experience. It is not unlike a high that comes with drug use. Over time, that high builds a psychological dependence and creates a compulsive need

It is possible to develop an addiction to other behaviors that become the sole focus of one’s life to the exclusion and detriment of other life-activities. According to the American Psychological Association, behaviors, such as cutting, can have the same high or rush in the brain, which is similar to the use of drugs. In that way, addictions can resemble the physiological symptoms that the use of drugs and alcohol might create.

Teen self injury treatment is multifaceted because there are many reasons why an adolescent might engage in self injury. For instance, self harm is often a way to cope with intense emotions, to calm and soothe, to feel more alive if they feel disconnected or numb, or to release pent up anger. For this reason, part of the treatment itself is to tenderly support an adolescent in getting in touch with the reason behind their behavior. Of course, teen self injury treatment will need to first address the endorphin effect and break the cycle of addiction.

Once the reason behind the self mutilation is identified, alternative coping mechanisms can be provided. For instance, if a teen needs to release tension or vent anger, he or she might engage in vigorous exercise, punch a cushion or mattress, scream into a pillow, squeeze a stress ball, make some noise such as playing an instrument, banging on drums or even pots and pans. If an adolescent is cutting to calm and soothe, he or she might take a bath or hot shower instead, or participate in a yoga class, cuddle with a dog or cat, wrap up in a warm blanket, watch a relaxing movie, get a massage, or listen to soft music. If a teen is using self injury as a way to feel alive again and to avoid feeling disconnected or numb, it might be helpful to have him or her call a friend instead, take a cold shower, or eat something with a strong taste or spice.

Self injury can also be a function of certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or anti-social personality disorder. For this reason, obtaining a diagnosis first can be an important part to teen self injury treatment.

The best way to care for a teen who is exhibiting self harming behavior is to seek the professional service of a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. With proper treatment, such as medication and therapy, self harm can be replaced with healthier coping mechanisms that are life affirming and safe.

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