Faculty Spotlight: Self-injury

Self-injury, also known as self-harm or non-suicidal self-injury, is deliberate self-inflicted harm to oneself. Behaviors that cause pain but are not done with the intention of ending life are considered self-injury. This includes cutting, burning, and biting – but can also include behaviors such as banging your head against a wall, hitting objects, or scratching. Often, self-injury is used as a way to cope with negative emotions.

Among college students, self-injury is common. One study, surveying over 14,000 college students, found that 15.3% had engaged in self-injury behaviors at least once in their lifetime, with higher rates among female students. 1 Among female students, the most common behavior was scratching and cutting, in easily covered areas such as the wrists, arms, thighs and stomach. This is compared to male students who reported punching objects with the intention of self-injury.1 Female students were more likely to disclose their self-injury behavior and to seek help compared to male students, raising concerns about the stereotyping of self-injury behaviors as a predominately female issue.1 While self-injury make look and manifest differently between the sexes, it is a problem across genders, races, ages, and ethnicities.

One way to help students is to be observant, such as noticing behaviors that may be indicative of self-injury includes obvious cuts, marks, and injuries on the hands and arms. Fostering self-compassion on campus and in the classroom may be another way to help students who may be struggling with self-injury. Recent research among self-injury college students has shown that there is a link between engaging in self-injury and low levels of self-compassion.2 Higher levels of self-compassion, the way in which we relate to ourselves internally, may reduce the amount of pain we are willing to tolerate – potentially reducing the frequency and duration of self-injury.2

Lastly, listening to students who may need help and providing them with resources (such as the Counseling Center), can be helpful.  For more information, check out NAMI’s site on self-harm.

1Whitlock, J., Muehlenkamp, J., Purington, A., Eckenrode, J., Barreira, P., Abrams, G. B., … Knox, K. (2011). Nonsuicidal self-injury in a college population: General trends and sex differences. Journal of American College Health, 59(8), 691-698.

2Gregory, W. E., Glazer, J. V., & Berenson, K. R. (2017). Self-compassion, self-injury, and pain. Cognitive Therapeutic Research, 41, 777-786. doi: 10.1007/s10608-017-9846-9

Harmful Eating Habits

All month we’ve been talking about body image and weight, from the Freshman 15 to defining healthy to body positivity. Unfortunately, eating disorders continue to have a presence on college campuses. The most commonly talked about eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. While it’s important to know about these eating disorders, what they look like, and how you can help others struggling with these disorders, it’s also valuable to know about other harmful eating habits. While someone may not be diagnosed with an eating disorder, this doesn’t erase the possibility that they could have harmful eating habits. It’s important to recognize for yourself, and among others, what disordered or harmful eating habits may look like, so that they can be changed before turning into a serious problem.

Chewing and spitting food, and over-exercising as a way to manage the amount of calories you’ve consumed, are two harmful habits. Chewing and spitting food avoids swallowing the food, therefore restricting and preventing the consumption of calories and nutrients that your body needs. The medical consequences of this habit include stomach ulcers and dental problems. Similarly, over-exercising, or excessive exercising, can be harmful to your health as you push your body to the extreme, often while going over the amount of energy your body can produce. This can lead to malnutrition, injury, and illness. Both of these harmful habits can make you feel isolated and can consume your thoughts – negatively impacting your social and academic life.

What can you do for yourself or others in your life that may be struggling? Reach out to the Counseling Center or call the 24-hour Crisis Line at (206) 461-3222. Additionally, you can reach out to NEDA where you can either call or chat online anonymously to ask questions about eating disorders and harmful eating habits.

Body Positivity

Body positivity – you’ve probably heard of this before. It’s a movement that started in the mid 90’s to change the way our culture and media understand and define beauty. The goal of the body positivity movement is to affirm and value unique beauty and is meant to inspire self-acceptance and well-being of your own body. Body positivity also addresses how you view others and brings awareness to body shaming – which you may do to yourself and to those around you. Body positivity is not just for young women – it’s for all gender identities, ages, ethnicities, and races.

While it’s a wonderful idea, self-acceptance and appreciation of your own body probably isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s hard to stop automatic self-shaming thoughts and judgments of other people. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to adopt a more positive body outlook!

Awareness of negative thoughts about yourself and others will allow you to be more mindful of future thoughts. Once you can identify negative thoughts when they’re happening, ask yourself where those thoughts are coming from. For instance, the thoughts, “I should be thinner” or “She shouldn’t be eating that”, are shaming and harsh judgments to make about yourself and others. These thoughts also employ “should” statements, which are cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are thoughts that we believe to be true but are not actually true. Our brain can use cognitive distortions to reinforce negative beliefs about ourselves and others, keeping the negative cycle of thoughts going.

Once you take a step back to look at the thoughts you’re having about yourself and those around you, you can make steps towards changing those thoughts. Finally, body positivity is a way of thinking – it may take time to change your automatic thoughts about your own body and other’s, but the benefits of accepting and appreciating yourself is worth it. You’ll find your self-esteem will go up, impacting not only how you see yourself and your successes or failures, but also how you interact with others. Happiness and self-acceptance are contagious!

Defining Healthy

We are flooded with messages and images of dieting and tips on “how to be thin” and “healthy”. Being thin has not always been desirable – it wasn’t until the 1800s that Americans became concerned with dieting. At the time, however, it wasn’t about being thin and “beautiful” – it was about minimizing fat to be healthy. Now, there are a plethora of diets but healthy has become synonymous with thin, but being thin does not mean someone is healthy and vice versa, being healthy does not mean being thin.

What does being healthy actually mean and what does it look like?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a physical, mental, and social well-being.  But they also emphasize that a healthy lifestyle means leading a full life. Being healthy goes beyond exercising regularly and eating less junk food. Being healthy is about feeling good  - both inside and out. Being healthy is a lifestyle and the WHO refers to this as a state of enhanced well-being, meaning that being healthy is a life-long process of wellness. It’s moving forward and making positive choices that impact your physical, mental, and social well-being with the goal of living a full life.

How does this apply to you in college? College can be stressful and chaotic. Being healthy can slip to the bottom of your priority list. Western culture and social media place importance on quick fixes to getting healthy, such as dieting, and it’s often misguided. The challenge for you then, when you’re thinking of eating better or exercising, is to ask yourself what would help you live a full life and what does that life look like? When answering these questions, try to come from a place of acceptance – you are uniquely you and your full life will not be the same as someone else. Lastly, take baby steps towards being healthy and see how you feel along the well. Being healthy is a life-long journey!

The Freshman 15

The Freshman 15, the idea that young adults in their first year of college gain approximately 15 pounds, is well-known and has been popularized in media – it was first mentioned in a Seventeen magazine article in 1989. But is there research to support the Freshman 15? No. College weight gain has been studied many times and the Freshman 15 is a myth.

The average young adult in college gains anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds and this is normal. Whether or not you’re a college student actually makes little difference – college-aged young adults gain weight even when not in college.

What does contribute to above average weight gain in college?

  • Alcohol, especially binge drinking, can contribute to weight gain, especially as you are likely to make poor food decisions during or after drinking.
  • Irregular eating habits – figuring out when to squeeze in meals around classes can be difficult, but if you can commit to a schedule and not skip healthy meals, your body will thank you.
  • Snacking – eating regular meals will help with snack cravings but try to be aware of mindless eating, especially during studying or when you’re feeling stressed.

So, what does all this mean? You should be kind to yourself about small amounts of weight gain in college. Media has popularized being overly weight-conscious and paranoia over weight gain in college for both men and women. College is a stressful time and you will make choices that are not 100% healthy – that’s ok. It’s normal. Healthy eating, such as mindful eating, avoiding alcohol, and exercising can help you feel better long-term. All in all, try to not put so much pressure on yourself, especially regarding weight, and try to embrace the college experience mindfully - even the late-night treats!