At the weekend I injured my lower back in the most painful and surprising style. I would like to tell you that it was whilst rock climbing or in pursuit of some other equally dynamic way of spending a British Bank Holiday weekend. The truth of it, however, was ever so slightly less glamorous. I believe my injury to be the result of carrying upstairs a vacuum cleaner. Now I am certainly no martyr to housework, but as I had three deadlines for written pieces staring at me, tired of their place on my pin-board, the sudden urge to clean was a distraction from facing the inevitable fear of confronting the blank page .The accidental physical pain I inflicted on myself whilst wrestling with my trusty ‘Henry’ vacuum cleaner certainly was then a distraction. I found myself so focused on the physics harm I had done to myself that all the psychological and emotional stresses and anxieties of deadlines and the feared consequences of not meeting them faded into insignificance by comparison.
Last week UK media revealed ‘ The Health Behaviour in School Aged Children Report’ (HBSC) to be published in the autumn will state that :
Up to one in five 15 year olds say they self harm (cut, burn, bite themselves)
45% of teenage girls report feeling low once a week.
So why am I interested in these figures? Self harm is a response to consistently unhappy lives causing mental ill health. As is gambling addiction. And as a specialist in gambling addiction I frequently treat both.
Self harm can be a misleading term implying that the intention of the behavior is destructive rather than, as it is, that of intending to survive by distracting from a painful emotional and psychological experience, by causing oneself physical pain to focus on. Gambling addiction in women also is an attempt to distract from similar painful life experiences by absolute focus on gambling.
In lack of understanding of the issues, self harm and gambling addiction in women are similar.
The woman who self harms often fears reporting to A&E if she has cut too deeply expecting little understanding for her behaviour and much blame for ‘ time wasting’. The woman with gambling addiction fears reporting her addiction when it starts to hurt too badly, fearing lack of understanding and blame for her reckless behaviour and wasting money.
Both gambling addiction and self harm do of course hurt. But how they both make sense to the woman who uses them as survival strategies is that each acts as a distraction from life problems experienced as so excruciating they are intolerable. So for example the relentless stress and anxieties around the bringing kids up alone, living with the constant fear of domestic violence or the nagging guilt of balancing career demands with the play dates diary are momentarily relieved; she swaps them for focus on the pain of the cut that can be concealed by clothing. Or she numbs them by focus on gambling; the hidden addiction.
I have treated many women in my practice who have at first swapped the pain of their seemingly intolerable and insoluble life problems for the distraction of the physical pain of self harm. They then, fearing escalating physical damage, have swapped the physical pain of self harm for what appeared to be the less damaging distractions of gambling addiction.When all money has been spent being thrown out of the cotton wool wrap of gambling online or on a slot machine leaves her anxious, stressed and depressed. As painful as these are, these still offer distractions to the terrifying troubles she is desperate to avoid.
Gambling Addition Self harm & Similarities:
Both are reportedly on the increase in UK women.
Both offer distractions from emotional pain by causing another pain of a predictable kind.
Both create feelings of being emotionally more in control.
Both offer a sense of emotional control without losing physical control, unlike drug/alcohol misuse.
Both create feelings of shame and fear of blame which block seeking treatment.
Both are easily hidden.
Hidden beneath both survival strategies are stressed, depressed, lonely and anxious women. The product of a society which reports rises in both damaging behaviours. Both self harm and gambling addiction hurt, but are a means of suppressing intense feeling when expressing it does not feel a safe option.