Self-Injury

Self-injury is the act of deliberately hurting oneself, often to change a way of feeling. Much self-injury becomes a pattern of behaviors that are ritualistic (use the same tool, cut in the same places, etc).

Some forms of self-injury include:

  • Carving
  • Scratching
  • Branding
  • Marking
  • Picking, and pulling skin and hair
  • Burning/abrasions
  • Cutting
  • Biting
  • Head banging
  • Bruising
  • Hitting
  • Tattooing
  • Excessive body piercing

People who engage in self-injury do so for many reasons. Self-injury can be a way of coping with painful feelings such as:

  • Worthlessness
  • Vulnerability
  • Detachment
  • Panic
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness
  • Rejection
  • Self-hatred
  • Confused Sexuality
  • Failure
  • Loneliness

Cutting releases brain chemicals called endorphins, the same chemicals referred to in the “runners high.” Some researchers think that the pain relief of the endorphins soothes some people, at least temporarily. It allows for a physical expression of overwhelming internal emotions, and for others, it serves to temporarily relieve stress and anxiety caused by these emotions. Some people don’t even feel the injury when they cut, and some use it as an attempt to bring themselves out of a numb state; the blood reminds them they are alive and human. Oftentimes, these emotions are a result of early life stressors such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, death, or divorce. It usually takes a combination of these stressors for someone to begin engaging in self-injury.

Adolescents who have difficulty talking about their feelings may show their emotional tension, physical discomfort, pain and low self-esteem with self-injurious behaviors. They may suffer from serious psychiatric problems such as depression, psychosis, PTSD, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. The shame and embarrassment that go with this coping strategy often make people regret self-injury once they move on to more adaptive ways of dealing with severe stress. Teenagers may hide their scars, burns and bruises due to feeling embarrassed, rejected or criticized about their physical appearance.

Self-injury is an unhealthy coping strategy but is usually not a suicide attempt. Self-harm can leave permanent scars and other physical damage. An evaluation is needed and it is not usually advisable to tell a person to stop their coping mechanisms immediately. They must learn to develop more strategies to handle stress.
(Sources: AACAP.org; NAMI.org)