Self-harm is the act of deliberately injuring oneself, most often through cutting. The behavior is also called non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI. It is generally often a sign of intense anxiety or distress. A person might harm themselves to numb emotional pain. They might also self-injure to maintain a feeling of control when they lack agency in other parts of their life.
Self-injuring behavior is not the same as a suicide attempt. Though some individuals who self-harm may attempt suicide, in general, acts of self-harm do not indicate a desire to end one’s life. However, they can still endanger one’s mental and physical health. If left untreated, the behavior may continue for many years.
Therapy can help individuals who wish to stop NSSI. However, if you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis, you may need to seek emergency help. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with
WHAT IS SEL- HARM?
Self-injury can occur in many forms:
- 70-90% of NSSI behavior involves cutting, a practice in which someone makes shallow incisions in their skin. Non-suicidal cutting is rarely done on the wrist due to the risk of piercing a blood vessel.
- 21-44% of cases involve hitting one’s head or throwing oneself against a wall.
- 15-35% of people who self-harm burn their skin, often with a lit match or cigarette.
- Self-embedding is an extreme form of self-harm in which a person inserts objects into their skin, such as staples or needles. They may leave the object there permanently or for a set period.
A person may engage in multiple types of self-harm in the same time frame. The most common places to injure oneself are the hands, wrists, stomach, and thighs.
WARNING SIGNS OF SELF-HARM
People who self-harm often try to hide their behavior from others. Yet even careful individuals often leave traces of their actions. Here are some warning signs that someone may be injuring themself:
- Suspicious injuries: The person may have frequent cuts or bruises which they blame on “accidents.”
- Stash of tools: A person may have a collection of sharp items that seem to have no purpose, such as needles or bottle caps. They might also go through an unusual number of razors.
- Blood stains on belongings: Blood from the self-harm behavior may stain a person’s towels, clothing, or bedding. A person may also have many bloody tissues/bandages in their trash.
- Concealing clothing: The person may wear long sleeves or pants to cover scars, even during the hot weather.
- Isolation: A person may shut themself in a bedroom or bathroom for long periods to self-injure in private. They might also withdraw from their social life in general.
Someone who is self-harming may have difficulty functioning at work or school. Their struggle to handle strong emotions can sabotage their relationships. They may also exhibit low self-esteem.
A person who shows one of these signs may or may not be self-injuring. The presence of many signs, however, is likely cause for concern. If you are worried about a loved one, you can discuss your situation with a crisis worker at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
WHY DO PEOPLE SELF-HARM?
Many people use self-harm as a coping mechanism for emotional overwhelm. Self-injury may serve different goals at different times. People who self-injure may be trying to:
- Express their pain: People who self-harm may have trouble communicating their emotions, or they may have feelings society discourages them from showing. Individuals may use NSSI to release a tension they can’t otherwise face.
- Distract themselves: Some may find physical pain easier to cope with than loneliness or anger. Physical pain may help people focus on the immediate present rather than their stressful situation.
- Punish themselves: An individual may feel shame for a perceived flaw or guilt for a past wrong. They may see self-harm as the only way to reduce these feelings.
- Feel pleasure: Injuring one’s flesh can cause the body to release pain-relieving chemicals called opiates. These “feel-good” chemicals can create a temporary but powerful high.
- Feel a sense of control: Those who have survived trauma (especially sexual abuse) may feel powerless after the fact. NSSI may serve as a way of reclaiming control over their bodies and emotions.
- Feel anything at all: Many people who self-harm report feeling emotionally numb. They may use NSSI to remind themselves they are alive.
All forms of self-harm use physical pain to address emotional problems. Yet the relief self-harm offers some individuals is only temporary. It does not help a person work through the issues that created the impulse. In fact, self-harm can prevent people from developing safer, more effective coping mechanisms. It can cause problems at work or school, lower one’s self-esteem, and intensify one’s isolation. In the long run, self-injury often worsens a person’s problems rather than solving them.