Why People Hurt Themselves

Individuals who self-injure may feel that doing so helps release pent-up feelings of anxiety, anger, or sadness. But evidence finds that over time, those raw emotions—along with additional feelings of guilt and shame—will continue to be present, and may even worsen. In addition, self-harm can be dangerous in itself, even if the individual has no wish to cause themselves significant or long-lasting damage.

Self-harming can provide temporary relief from feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress or self-loathing.

The pain that is inflicted can release endorphins and a rush of adrenaline, which often become pleasurable to the sufferer and causes them to temporarily forget other negative feelings that they may be experiencing. However, this is often short-lived, and the internal anguish often remains afterwards.

Self-harm is frequently associated with adolescents, and in fact, recent figures show that it is impinging on younger people more than ever before. The stresses of puberty, school life and the influence of social media can be challenging for some adolescents and can often result in anxiety and depression. When depression and anxiety mount, some turn to self-harming, and many parents say they just do not know how to help their child in the best way. It’s important to understand that self-harming is not an attention seeking behaviour and is actually a coping mechanism.

The roots of self-harming behavior are often found in early childhood trauma, including physical, verbal, or sexual abuse. It may also be an indication of other serious mental health issues that are independent of trauma, such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder. In some cases, self-harm that arises suddenly may be an attempt to regain control after a particularly disturbing experience, such as being assaulted or surviving another traumatic event.

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Who is most likely to self-harm?

Self-harm occurs most often in teenagers and young adults; recent data found rates ranging from 6 to 14 percent for adolescent boys and 17 to 30 percent for girls. Adults, however, can and do engage in self-harm, particularly those with mental health conditions or a history of self-injury.

Does self-harm mean someone is suicidal? Not necessarily. Self-injury can look like attempted suicide, and some who self-harm do ultimately go on to attempt suicide. But many people who intentionally hurt themselves are not suicidal. Rather, they are simply taking extreme measures to distract themselves from—or attempt to soothe—mental anguish.

What should I do if a loved one is self-harming?

Responding with compassion—and recognizing that self-harm is an attempt at coping with painful feelings—is the first step. Next, encourage the person to seek help, assist them in finding other outlets for their negative feelings (such as exercise), and make yourself available to discuss any difficult emotions they are experiencing.

How can I reduce my urge to self-harm?

Identifying self-harm triggers—and avoiding them when possible—can help to reduce self-harming behavior. Replacing self-harm with self-soothing activities, such as painting, taking a hot shower, or exercising, can also help reduce the urge to self-injure. Self-cutting and overdosing are the most common forms, but other self-injurious behaviour includes:

While the physical impact of self-harming can be more apparent, the psychological difficulties experienced if you self-harm can be extreme.Feelings of anxiety, frustration and depression regarding your current situation, or as a result of personal trauma, ultimately become so overwhelming that damaging your body provides temporary relief. Psychological symptoms of self-harming include: