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Why Do People Self-Harm?

Self-harm is a tough subject for both those who self-harm and those who love them. If you are reading this, it is likely that you either have self-harmed or you know someone who is or has self-harmed and you’re looking to find them help. First and foremost, if you suspect that you or someone close to you is in serious danger of hurting themselves, you should seek emergency attention. 

The purpose of this article is to offer some general information about the topic of self-harm in hopes to provide insight about possible triggers that can cause or perpetuate self-harm. However, this information is in no way meant to be a diagnostic tool or treatment. It is also recommended that you seek professional treatment from a licensed mental health professional if you or someone you know is self-harming. Only a licensed mental health professional can help you identify the reasons behind your actions in such a way that will help you to change and grow as an individual. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, self-harm is defined simply as hurting yourself on purpose. Mental Health America adds to this definition stating that self-harm is intentinal, repeated, impulsive and not intended to be lethal. Becaus of this, self-harm is also known as nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI). Mental Health America also notes that approximately 4% of American adults self-harm and of those who self-harm, approximately 70-90% cut their skin, 21-44% bang or hit their head, and 14-35% burn themselves. 

However self-harm can take many forms including: excessive scratching until bleeding, punching oneself or objects, infecting oneself, inserting objects into body openings, drinking harmful substances, breaking bones, pulling out hair, picking at wounds to prevent healing, and any other behvaior that results in harming one’s body. 

Man passed out with his head on the table and a half-full bottle of alcohol with a cup in front of him

The American Psychological Association notes that 1.3% of children, 17% of adolescents, 33% of college students, and 5% of adults  have reported self-harm. However, because many people who self-harm do not report, these numbers are likely higher. They also found that women are more likely to cut than men, while men are more likely to bruising themselves, hurting themselves with taking substances, and having others hurt them. Currently, race and socieconomic status do not seem to play a role in the prevalence of self-harm, however sexual orientation may, especially if the individual is a sexual minority. 

Although most people find the thought of self-harm to be overall unpleasant, it is clear that there is an appeal to some people. In most cases, the risk for self-harm is much higher in people who are bullied, rejected by peers, depressed, have been abused (sexually, physically, emotionally), or who use excessive amounts of alcohol or drugs. 

On the outside, it may be confusing to know why someone is self-harming. While everyone may have their own reasons, let’s take a look at some of the more common reasons people self-harm: 

Control: 

Some people may self-harm as an attempt to control their emotions by redirecting the focus of their attention. Because physical pain is a strong sensation, it can briefly override emotions or thoughts. This gives the illusion of control to a person who is self-harming because they believe that self-harming enables them to stop feeling certain emotions or thinking certain thoughts. In some cases, the individual can also feel control because they are able to control the timing, method, and extent of self-harm. 

A Coping Strategy to Avoid Suicide: 

Contrary to popular belief, self-harm is not always a precursor to suicide. In most cases, people who self-harm rarely want to commit suicide and are often looking for something else. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two is complex and professional help should be sought to determine the exact nature of the self-harming behavior. 

With that being said, most occurences of self-harm are used as a coping strategy to avoid or prevent suicide. The strongest evidence of this is the fact that self-harm is a chronic condition, meaning that it lasts for an extended period of time. 

To Express Pain: 

Some people may not have the words to express what or how they are feeling. Because of this, they may feel completely overwhelmed or unable to contain the experience. By expressing their emotions in a phyiscal way, it allows them to cope with the physical injury as a way of attempting to cope with the emotional pain. In some cases, self-harm may also be used to communicate emotion pain with others. Because emotional pain is not always easily noticed, physical representations of that pain can often get a reaction.   

Black and white sideways closeup of a woman's eye and tear falling down her cheek

It Releases Tension and Endorphins: 

With people who find themselves trapped in negative thought patterns, self-harm can help break the cycle by providing a distraction. For example, in cases of extreme anxiety, self-harming can relieve excess tension and help a person self-soothe. It can also help to refocus the attention elsewhere to provide relief from racing or negative thoughts. 

Additionally, some people may become addicted to the endorphins associated with self-injury. When the body becomes injured, endorphins are released that can cause feelings of euphoria, calmness, or even a type of high. When this happens, self-harm can be similar to that of someone with a substance addiction. 

To Feel Something: 

Another reason people self-mutilate is to escape feelings of numbness or nothingness. This can happen as a result of a traumatic event that causes dissociation, or a disconnected memories. Traumatic events can also cause feelings of detachment about the event or the emotions associated with it. Both can result in a feeling of emotional numbness. To “feel” something again, people may use strong sensations such as drugs, sex, or physical pain through self-harm. 

To Punish Oneself: 

In people who have been abused, self-harm is often seen as a way of punishing themselves. Because victims of abuse tend to view themselves incorrectly through the eyes of their abuser, they find reasons within themselves that warrant punishment. Although self-harm may not occur as frequently as with other cases, it often occurs when the individual has become overwhelmed by a certain situation. 

If you read this article because you are trying to understand why a loved one is self-harming, it is important to try and support them in finding professional help. As much as you’d like to step in and fix everything, only a licensed mental health professional can help them to understand their reasoning for self-harm, as well as how to discontine the habit. 

If you read this article because you are self-harming and you don’t know why, we encourage you to seek help from a licensed therapist. The desire to self-harm is different for every person and even though this article hoped to provide some insight, a personalized therapist can provide you with a safe place to explore your own reasons. 

Breaking the Self-Harm Cycle

Woman holding pieces of a white broken plate against a black background

In the meantime, here are some strategies to help break the cycle: 

  • Break something: instead of destroying yourself, destroy something else. Preferably something not too valuable, like a glass or a plate. Throwing it in the sink usually keeps most of the debris localized and off the floor, so you will be less likely to hurt yourself accidentally. For some, the sound of shattering glass and the sensation that something is broken is enough to provide a distraction, release tension, and help them cope with a tough situation.
  • Exercise: when you feel overwhelmed, go running, punch a punching bag, or complete some other kind of vigorous exercise. This exercise will help you alleviate excess anxiety while also exhausting your body and forcing your mind to focus on the task at hand. It also works great for relieving tension.
  • Use a rubber band: if it is the sensation of cutting you crave, use a rubber band to snap against your wrists, arms, or legs until the desire passes. You can start by snapping hard at first and then gradually get softer as you begin to feel relief. For those that want to see blood, you can also use a red marker to draw lines on the area and then use ice to make it run. 
  • Change your surroundings: for most people, self-harming becomes a routine and there are certain places that you tend to use. When you start to feel the urge to self-harm, leave your surroundings and go elsewhere. Take a walk or a drive and just redirect your mind until the sensation passes. Chances are that by interrupting the routine, the sensation will pass pretty quickly.
  • Make a to do list: write about 5-10 things that absolutely need to get done before you can self-harm. Start going through the list and try to focus on what all five senses are experiencing as you complete each one. If you are folding laundry, what do the clothes feel like in your hands? How many colors and shades of colors are in front of you? Do they smell fresh? Can you hear the fabric rustle or the static electricity as you separate the piles?
  • Scream: this one is a bit tricky depending on where you are. If you can, scream into a pillow to mute the sound or turn on some music to override the sound. You can also go for a drive, blast the car stereo and scream along to a favorite song.

Finally, if you or someone you know is self-harming, please try and support them in getting the help they need. Scars may last a lifetime, but the pain doesn’t have to. 

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