Self-medication is not taking an ibuprofen for a headache. Self-medication methods are the behaviors we humans engage in instead of dealing with our emotions. All four of those sets of behaviors previously mentioned above are ways people self-medicate. We avoid, we try to control, we push down, we deny, we off-load onto someone else all the emotions we don’t have tools for. Especially fear, since that’s the emotion most humans experience most frequently.
Since at its core it is a behavior meant to avoid emotions, self-medication is not healthy. And the kinds of self-medicating behaviors we see in modern humans are, strangely, widely accepted and socially normalized. Behaviors like imbibing in:
Benzos – to slow down (e.g., Valium, Xanax, Ativan)
Speed – including caffeine and prescriptions like Adderall and Ritalin
These are all actual substances, but self-medication comes in other forms that are also harmful:
Internet browsing/Netflix “binges”
Food – overeating, emotional eating, excess salt, sugar, fat, etc.
There are many more. And you’ll notice that this is a mostly list of legal purchases aside from marijuana (not everywhere, yet), and, unless you have a prescription, benzos and most speed. Also, I have found the amount of high functioning adult professionals that mix benzos and win shocks me. How many famous people have to die from this and other downer-downer combos? I’m alarmist about almost nothing, but benzos and alcohol consumed together (often casually) raises my eyebrows.
It’s strange how using substances and over-relying on them is often only seen as a problem when it is illegal or puts someone into crisis, like:
It’s hard to know where society draws the line on where these behaviors lie – in the healthy or unhealthy camp. In psychology, an unhealthy or “maladaptive” behavior is often defined by if your involvement in the behavior is negatively impacting your ability to function at work, school, or in your social relationships. Ok, and who defines that? Now, I’m not saying there’s a lot of interpretation or wiggle room in defining if cutting is healthy or unhealthy. Even people who cut themselves believe it is unhealthy to deliberately hurt themselves. But they do it because it works, meaning it reduces the intensity of the negative emotions that are currently overwhelming them and causing distress. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. And in that way, cutting is much like problem drinking, or sex addiction, or any drug at all taken to numb-out a distressing emotion. And that can even be when that drug is prescribed.
So, in that way, I would argue that basically every human has engaged in self-harm behavior in one form or another likely many times in their lives. What if the routine of coming home from work and having a cocktail was, instead, a short neighborhood walk before dinner? Meditation, when practiced with some regularity, has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate and reduces inflammation. A martial art teaches a practice of disciplining the mind and using the body in a way one can defend themselves.
Never underestimate the calming effect controlled hitting of something can have on raging adolescent hormones. I’d argue it’s healthier (and more legal) than fighting with other humans, more active than escaping into video games, and definitely more compassionate than cyberbullying. I’ve seen a martial art build self-confidence in many people because mastery of a skillset and having the positive regard for one’s self to believe we are worth defending often leads to a reduction and extinction of self-harm behaviors.
And if we taught skills and tools for effectively regulating emotions – like as part of regular junior high or high school curriculum – I argue that we would be able to largely do away with The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (that is foundationally biased) and most mental health disorders altogether. Very little research could reveal to you the groups that make these diagnoses, as well as the groups largely suffering from them – and how that reflects the power dynamics in this country and the world. By no means do you have to agree with me on this point. It is relevant to see cutting and other self-harm behaviors like fighting and food-restricting through the frame of self-medication because that is how we treat and eliminate cutting from your kid’s coping répertoire. We’ve got to figure out what is causing such intense emotions in your kid that they are unable to cope without hurting themselves. And we’ll start to figure that out in the next chapter.
**If you would like a copy of my book, visit cuttingbook.drjjkelly.com for your FREE download