Unpacking Trauma and Self-Injury

Many young people who have experienced ongoing trauma such as abuse throughout their childhood have often developed ways to cope with the environment, threats and emotions at that time.  Even after the abuse has stopped or they have been removed from that environment, young people have already learnt strategies, often maladaptive, to cope with their world and struggle to get a handle on their emotions.

Emotional Dysregulation is simply a term used to explain when a person doesn’t really have a handle on their feelings.

Self-injury can be a strategy that young people use to get a grasp back on strong feelings.

In these cases, self-injury can work in the following ways:

1. Help a young person regain control by feeling ‘real’, acting as way to ‘wake up’ through the strong sensations felt.

2. One way a young person can learn to cope with extremely painful thoughts, feelings or memories is to shut them down.  Pushing these emotions down for long period of times means that dissociation often becomes the ‘go to’ response for stressful situations.  As such, young people discuss feeling ‘numb’, detached from ‘reality’, their body or emotions.  Self-injury can then provides a way to ‘feel again’ or ‘make them feel alive’. 

From this understanding, there may be no specific trigger for a young person to self-injure but rather they may just feel the need to gain some control or ‘feel something’.

3. Help a young person regain control by experiencing a release from overwhelming emotions, thoughts or feelings.

4. For some young people, self-injury instead provides a way to stop the distress caused by overwhelming emotions.  Young people explain it as  “a sense of release, calm, just stillness” or “it felt as if all the badness and everything I had inside was coming out”.  Self-injury can provide a physical distraction, creating a calming effect, slowing down the mind, calming the breathing and heart rate, enabling the person to cope.  It also can often provide a visual representation of their inner turmoil, which is a lot easier to see, cope with and treat.

Further Resources