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Stressful Times Lead to Self-Destructive Behaviors

I meticulously chop up the frozen peanut butter cups, dropping them into an oversized bowl, draping over the already diced chocolate chip brownies. Sometimes I will cascade a river of M&Ms on top before everything gets mixed into the chocolate fudge ice cream. Most times I am faced with the now rhetorical question of “Would this be even better if I added some peanut butter?” Obviously it would because peanut butter makes everything better. I refer to this gluttonous process as "Making a Coldstone" in homage to the ice cream chain notorious for folding your choice of mix-ins into their ice cream. As I go through this process, I possess the awareness I’m once again heading down a road that doesn’t end well. It ends deliciously, but that culinary joy is quickly overshadowed by feelings of shame, remorse, and regret.

A few months ago following my annual physical I was informed I am pre-diabetic, meaning that if I don’t make some significant life changes, my ‘Coldstones’ will lead straight to my tombstone. So why and how, knowing everything I know about the dangers of this behavior, do I still find myself heading down that dark, treacherous, fudge-covered, sugar-laden road? Because I am an emotional eater, and like many humans, when I experience heightened levels of stress I make poor choices and engage in self-destructive behaviors.

Self-destructive behavior, which is also commonly referred to as self-sabotage, is any action or behavior that results in physical, psychological, or emotional harm to self. Self-destructive behavior takes many different forms, some more overt and high-risk (drug/alcohol use, binge eating, fighting, criminal behavior, unsafe sex/sexual promiscuity/infidelity, gambling), others more covert and subtle (procrastination, avoidance of problems, ignoring self-care, neglecting relationship needs, self-sacrifice, self-doubt, poor boundaries, codependency), yet all have the potential to be extremely damaging and harmful.

Why do I engage in self-destructive behavior?

These behaviors often start out small and as a way to self-soothe when experiencing difficult situations and uncomfortable feelings. The behaviors are then repeated and repeated in similar situations, resulting in more avoidance and usually escalating in their frequency and intensity. We create a self-reinforcing cycle of hurt, pain, and imprisonment. Having a drink when feeling anxious or depressed, playing video games/watching tv instead of working on that school paper, calling out of work on the day of a big presentation, having a one-night stand following a tough break-up, or starting an argument with your spouse and storming out of the house to avoid an undesirable conversation are all common examples.

As stress increases so does the presence of self-destructive behavior. People struggle to effectively cope with life problems and things continue to become more overwhelming. This year has brought with it a plethora of additional stressors- new concerns about our health and the health of loved ones, loss of jobs and increased financial problems, loneliness and isolation as a result of quarantine and travel restrictions, modifications to school and work schedules and practices, and anxiety/uncertainty about the future just to name a few.

Have you found yourself struggling to deal with an overflowing plate of responsibilities? Do you often put off taking care of responsibilities because it just feels like too much? Have you noticed your relationships deteriorating? Do you find yourself engaging in more unhealthy habits and neglecting self-care? You are not alone.

How do I stop self-destructive behavior and shift towards self-nurturing behavior?

Getting to the root of self-destructive behavior is the key to achieving healthier ways of dealing with stress. Self-destructive behaviors are born out of an unwillingness, resistance, or inability to deal with challenging life circumstances, often stemming from core issues of trauma, low self-esteem/confidence, feelings of unworthiness and/or incompetence, and fear. Procrastination and avoidance behaviors, the use of addictive/unhealthy substances, the seeking out, returning to, or remaining in bad relationships, and refusing to take steps towards improving one’s life are all behaviors indicative of a person who deep down does not believe they deserve peace, happiness, freedom, abundance, and wellness. A person who truly felt they deserved these things and believed they were worthy of having these things, would respond differently in times of stress and hardship. Reshaping these beliefs of worthiness and deservingness is the key to healing self-destructive behavior and can best be done with the help of a mental health professional.

Are you or someone you love struggling with self-destructive behaviors? Get the help you deserve. Contact me to learn more about how counseling can help at

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