Understanding the link between anxiety & self-harm

Trigger Warning for cutters

Part II of an article on Self-Injury & CUTTING
Intenational Self-harm Awareness Day – March 1
In the What Kind of World do YOU Want? series



What do YOU do to beat back anxiety?

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

Father and Mother, and Me, 
Sister and Auntie say 
All the people like us are We, 
And every one else is They.

“We’re all islands shouting lies to each other
across seas of misunderstanding.”

~ both by Rudyard Kipling

As I said in the first part of this article, introducing
The Butterfly Project, “to my knowledge, cutting and
other types of self-injury are not true ‘ADD/EFD Comorbids.‘”

ANXIETY, however, is one of the comorbid disorders  — BIGtime  (although not always at levels that warrant an official diagnosis as a disorder, or so incapacitating it requires medication to manage).

Everybody deals with anxiety

In 25 years of experience in the coaching field, I have found the attempt to avoid feelings of anxiety beneath almost all of the ineffective strategies and maladaptive behaviors I have run across, in both “vanilla” and ADD/EFD-flavored coaching situations.


  • Although humans beings crave novelty to keep us interested and engaged, anything new and different carries a certain element of risk.
  • Risk has both feet in uncertain territory. Human brains tend to prefer safety and security to risk.
  • To feel safe once more — and quickly, too — we humans have a tendency to exhibit a range of ineffective or maladaptive behaviors when we are unsure.

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Risk is stressful

We can feel the effects of stress in our bodies, even when we are not consciously aware that a lack of surety is behind what we are doing to reduce our stress levels.

Let’s not get black and white about stress – without a little stress we’d all be in trouble. At a certain point along the continuum, however, stress is definitely a harbinger of anxiety. Without even realizing it, most of us start putting on the emotional breaks, long before we get to a full-blown anxiety state.

We are an arrogant species. Our own way is “natural and normal and effective,” of course – THEIR way is “bizarre and harmful.” The truth is that none of the strategies I am about to list target the source of the stress. In that sense, they are ALL maladaptive. “Harm” is a matter of degree and perception.

Depending on the area of impact, we humans tend to do any number of things, alone or in combination:

•   We eat  – most of us have “comfort foods,”  some of us cope by eating more
•   We drink caffeine — colas, energy drinks, coffee and tea for additional “coping juice,” or
•   We seek out physical risks (stimulation increasing focus factor to handle mental stress)
•   We escape into sleep – the “reserves” approach from the other side
•   We smokesmoking both legal and illegal substances, for opposite reasons
•   We drink alcohol, “liquid courage” – and sometimes we get trapped in addiction
•   We procrastinate

And some of us harm ourselves in a more overtly serious fashion

In America alone, an estimated 5% struggle with the urge to self-injure as a coping strategy (the percentage becomes larger when eating disorders are included).

The blog of one sufferer includes this explanation, “Think of Muzak because that is what it is — all the time — with the volume turned up, at times.”  

Sometimes they give in to the urge to self-injure to silence that Muzak, if only for a few minutes.

Coping Strategies

SecurityBlanketLinusLearning how to “self-soothe” begins in infancy. There are a great many theories about when and how to best introduce the need to learn to manage one’s own anxieties.

To echo Winnicott, regardless of how they choose to straddle the line between providing comfort and fostering independence, “good enough” parents understandfor example, that no child can sleep with Mommy and Daddy forever.

Few children are comfortable with their nightlyseparation anxiety,” but most children who are developing “normally” learn ways to comfort themselves eventually.

Frequently, they are helped to make the transition to independence, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, with the help of a transitional object — a pacifier, favorite teddy bear, or security blanket. 

  • According to a study at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee by Richard H. Passman and his team, about 60% of U.S. children have at least some attachment to a security object. Passman’s research also points out that there is nothing abnormal about being attached to them.
  • In 2010, the Travelodge hotel surveyed 6,000 British adults and reported that 35% admitted to sleeping with stuffed animals still.

Kids receive another lesson in anxiety management the first time their parents leave them in the care of someone else and walk out the door for a night out together — and yet another when the child is left at school for the first time. Those who are sent to boarding school (or attend college far from home) receive another still.

Harmful Strategies

Without going into a great deal of detail, some of us must find ways to manage cruel and unusual situations that the rest of us can’t even imagine. Others have more to manage than their level of psychological and neurological development will support at the particular time they are expected to cope.

  • The more severe the situation one is attempting to manage, or the younger the age at which one is expected to cope with more than he or she is able to handle, the greater the likelihood that at least some of the coping strategies will be maladaptive.
  • Supposedly or initially helpful, those very strategies we developed to help us cope with emotions that threatened to overwhelm us oft-times creep across some imaginary cost-benefit line.
  • In extreme instances, “the cure becomes worse than the disease.”


What you need to keep in mind at all times

To be helpful, the most important thing to understand is that those of us who do not self-injure to their extent cannot really understand how they feel, OR how cutting and other extreme forms of self injury help.

NotSuicidalWe CAN, however, empathize with their fear and their pain, and affirm that they are loved and lovable, even with these behaviors. 

For most of those who self-injure, their cure has become worse than their disease.

Tragically, their fear of attempting to cope without that “cure” has become too great.

As they continue to say, pleading for you to listen from beliefin most cases, they are not attempting to commit suicide, they are attempting to find some way to LIVE in the face of overwhelming anxiety.

They need our caring and our support, not our “logic” and our judgment.

Coming up in this article: I will continue to explain more about what’s going on, how ADD/EFD complicates the problem, what relatives and friends can do and say to make a positive difference, and what you might be tempted to do and say that will escalate the problem. I will also unpack what’s helpful and what’s not with The Butterfly Project.

Click HERE for the next article in this series: Self-Harm Specifics – ADD girls at greater risk

Self-Harm links immediately below. Scroll down for “Regular” Related Content links, 

© 2013, 2017, all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”
(reblogs always okay, and much appreciated)

Shared on the Senior Salon

If you are one of the relatively few professionals who is already dealing with this issue in a proactive fashion and want to add links to your articles on the topic in the comments section below, PLEASE DO — and link back, so that we can ALL help spread the word.

First-person insights from cutters, recovering cutters & ex-cutters are welcome as well. 

I will approve links to related content posted in the comments section as soon as I can verify that they are not link-spam (or shaming). If and when links reach a sufficient number to do so, I will compile and list in a separate “Self-Harm Related Content” post (similar to the one for sleep struggles and disorders).

As always, if you want notification of new articles – in this Series, or any new posts on this blog – give your name and email to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right.  (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too) STRICT No Spam Policy

If you’d like some one-on-one (or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click the E-me link  <—here (or on the menubar at the top of every page) and I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related Content

What Kind of World Articles & Related Inspiration:

From the Walking A Mile in Another’s Shoes Series of Articles

Related Articles ’round the ‘net

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

29 Responses to Understanding the link between anxiety & self-harm

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  5. Bernadette says:

    Madelyn, I have come to expect from reading your articles information that is informed and well written and this post fulfills that expectation. But, I also think that your interaction with Osyth has added a human dimension to this information that is invaluable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a lovely comment, Bernadette. Thank you so much.

      I’m right with you about interactions in the comment section. They often add context to the article, sometimes additional information, so I’m always thrilled to know that others read them. I continue to be surprised at how few take advantage of a chance to vent to an understanding ear that might even be able to offer something helpful – beyond empathy, I mean.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, we all have different ways of coping with stress. Some don’t cope at all, and that’s where the trouble begins. I don’t do any of the coping strategies you suggested. Instead, I escape without taking any means of communication with me, and I go for a long, long walk! I’m much happier when I return.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Osyth says:

    Such a brilliant balanced piece of work – illuminating the why and the need for anxiety, the ways that people can cope etc etc but the stand out for me is the focus on self-harming. I have four daughters. One harmed herself at the classic age (14-17) and I felt really really helpless, I felt I was failing her and yet over and over again she said to me ‘but mummy, if I was sucking my thumb you’d understand … understand that it helps me cope’. I never really understood but I tried to go with her on that part of her journey. Ironically, of course. i caused me tremedous anxiety, she knew that was happening and I gave her more pressure. And more guilt to the mummy heap which is my default in life ….

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am so sorry to read about your daughter’s struggles, and thanks for the endorsement for this article. I’m sure it was a difficult period for BOTH of you. It is awful to have to stand by and watch someone you love struggle and not be able to do anything about it but worry.

      It sounds like you handled it as well as anybody could – at least your daughter was able to talk to you about it. Did she seek professional help or did it finally subside “on its own.” According to one comment from a former cutter on one of these “cutting” posts, that happens sometimes (and did to her). A colleague learned only YEARS later that her daughter had been a cutter (and is no longer). Although she still struggles mightily with a rather severe anxiety disorder, she now has medication that helps her cope.

      If you’re still struggling to understand, I’ve linked a first-person account that is pretty good to the article above: March 1 is Self Harm Awareness Day – it’s the first one in the group ABOVE the little couch.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        Thank you. In my daughter’s case we found her, after several tries, the right councillor and I do think that, although it seemed to dissipate by itself, the professional help was crucial to speeding the process. Of course I will always worry. At the moment she is in the final weeks of her Fine Arts Batchelor’s Degree in England and seems in remarkably good fettle but I find myself terribly anxious if I can’t SEE her. I believe that mothering is to give our babies roots and wings, to gently let out the apron string they hold to until, silently and un-noticed, they are no longer holding but to keep the parental end intact should they need to cling on again for a while. I will certainly read the account. I think that there is tremendous strength in reading the right things, filing them in the library of our mind and being able to draw on them if necessary. Xx

        Liked by 1 person

        • It sounds to me like you have been- and are – a great mom. Since your daughter shared with you before, I think it wise for you to believe that if she were in trouble, emotionally, you’d know about it. So do your best not to borrow trouble – though being ready to respond by arming yourself with inside information is probably a good idea. More to the point, it is something you can control, and control is always calming.

          Don’t let worry spoil your enjoyment of the next six months and your beautiful new home. If your daughter seems fine, she probably is.

          I know, easy for ME to say – but if you can do it, even a little bit, it will help, which is my intention with this comment.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Osyth says:

            Madelyn, thank you. Thank you so much. You have actually bought tears to my eyes with the wisdom of what you say and the clear understanding of the little bit of me that gets consumed by worry if I’m not careful. I love that phrase ‘don’t borrow trouble’. I have stored your words close to my heart and I will take the time out to make sure I feel prepared (for what is not going to happen …. let’s think positive) and therefore calmed. Calm is a beautiful word, isn’t it? Xx

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes – and stress and worry are ugly ones. Easier said than done to tip that balance to the more positive side, however.

              I’m sure your daughter has been working on more positive ways to manage anxiety – and may already have many in place. Keep thinking “no news is good news.” 🙂

              Mothers are born to worry about the cubs – I don’t know many who don’t (even when the cubs have long since flown the nest, to mix metaphors). Surely it’s genetic. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            • Osyth says:

              Flying cubs …. I like this image of little winged bears! We are hard wired as mothers, of course we are – otherwise the whole thing would go dreadfully wrong. Has anyone told you what a wise person you are today? Or what a GOOD person? Or reminded you that you are really doing a fantastic job? Because if they didn’t, I’m taking pleasure in telling you so and if they did I take equal pleasure in joining their ranks xxx

              Liked by 1 person

            • What a dear you are, Osyth! Some days I feel older and wiser, but most I am only too aware of how far I am, in fact, from a claim to real wisdom. So it is lovely to read your endorsing comment, especially tonight. Thank you SO very much, since I’m dealing with some nonsense currently that has me wondering if I ever had wit-one in my brain! 🙂

              I do endeavor to remain kind to others through it all, however. Not that it is always returned, but I got a good dose of perspective with the quote below (sorry – forgot the source and I’m quoting loosely).

              “Expecting others to treat you well because you are a nice person is like expecting a wild animal not to eat you because you are a vegetarian.” 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            • Osyth says:

              That quote is going up on my study wall! I am sorry you are going through a time which is eroding your faith in yourself. Cling onto my words – they are meant (I have few rules but one of the main ones is that I only EVER say what I mean) and they are true. Go softly through whatever it is you are going through. Xxx

              Liked by 1 person

            • God bless you – and if you are a praying woman, pray for a peaceful conclusion that enables me to return my attention to things that REALLY matter, and away from the small minds of those who have no idea which things those are.

              And thank you again for your kind and comforting words – THEY are going on the wall of my home office!

              Liked by 1 person

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