What Is Self-Injury and Why Do People Do It?
Everyone deals with stress and overwhelming feelings in different ways. One way people sometimes try to process intense feelings of emotional stress or uncertainty is by deliberately doing harm to their bodies.
It goes by a lot of names—cutting is probably the most common—but experts call it self-injury, self-harm, or, sometimes, “nonsuicidal self-injury,” because most of the time people who hurt themselves this way are not trying to attempt suicide.
There’s a lot of information about self-injury on social media, so you may have heard about it, tried it yourself, or know someone who does it. Almost 20 percent of teenagers say they have self-injured at some point in their lives. Recent research suggests that more people have self-injured since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Several celebrities, such as Demi Lovato and Russell Brand, also have spoken publicly about their struggles with self-harm.
If you are self-injuring—or know someone who may be—it’s important to learn about it and find other ways to work through difficult emotions or experiences. Self-injury can feel like a temporary relief when you are in emotional pain, but it can have long-lasting physical and emotional effects. Even though self-injury is not done to end someone’s life, repeatedly hurting their body can make it easier for them to think about—or try to—end their life because they have gotten used to hurting themselves.
What Self-Injury Looks Like
Self-harm can take several different forms, including cutting, burning, poking, or scratching your skin; hitting yourself; or banging into objects like furniture or walls. People usually target their arms and legs for self-harm, but they can do it anywhere on their body.
Why People Injure Themselves
People self-injure for different reasons. Some do it to manage or control difficult emotions such as anger, sadness, disassociation, guilt, or shame. If someone is feeling very numb or disconnected from themselves, they may self-harm to try to reconnect. If someone is feeling less than human—a phenomenon known as depersonalization—they may self-harm to feel human again.
Sometimes self-harm is a form of self-punishment. If you are experiencing feelings of guilt and shame, you may feel like you deserve to feel physical pain.
Recent studies indicate common reasons for self-harm include:
- “Obtaining relief from feelings or thoughts.”
- “Punishing [myself].”
- “Letting someone know or getting a reaction.”
- “Feeling something, even if it was pain.”
Other reasons were being unhappy, depressed, angry, or upset; because they did not like themselves; family problems; to feel relaxed; to give themselves something to do when alone; and because they felt like a failure.
What It Feels Like When You Self-Injure
Self-injury can bring relief from painful emotions. Scientists are still looking into how it works, but research suggests that causing a wound on your body triggers something called the endogenous opioid system, which is essentially the body’s natural way of relieving pain. Another way researchers think it may work is something called “pain offset,” which is the idea that even though injuring yourself hurts, the pain relief you feel when you stop doing it may also bring some relief to the emotional pain you are in at the time.
Self-injury comes from a very natural urge we all have: the urge to feel better. The problem is that it works for only a short period of time and produces its own problems, including the possibility of infection and other complications from wounds. The other risk is that for someone who has thought about suicide, self-injury can bring them closer to an attempt because it is teaching them how to get over their body’s signals that tell them not to hurt themselves.
The key to learning how to stop injuring yourself is to learn and develop other ways to cope with difficult emotions. That is exactly what treatment for self-injury does, and it is very effective. With the right support, you can learn ways to manage difficult feelings without hurting yourself that will feel so much better.
If you need help right now:
Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.
Learn more about self-injury and how you can get help or help someone else