What Is Self-Harm?

Self-harm, or self-mutilation, is the act of deliberately inflicting pain and damage to one's own body. Self-harm most often refers to cutting, burning, scratching, and other forms of external injury; it can, however, also include internal or emotional harm, such as consuming toxic amounts of alcohol or drugs or participating in unsafe sex.

While self-injury can look like attempted suicide—and some who self-harm do ultimately go on to attempt suicide—many people who intentionally hurt themselves are not suicidal. Rather, they are simply taking extreme measures to distract themselves from the challenges of daily life or attempting to release themselves from unbearable mental anguish.

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 damage.

Ultimately, it's critical to find healthier ways to cope. Seeking the help of a therapist, or discussing self-harm with a trusted love one, are good avenues by which to start.

Get help to stop harming yourself. Find a professional near you.

Who Harms Themselves, and Why?

Self-harm occurs most often in teenagers and young adults; in fact, recent data suggest that as many as 20 percent of American teenagers report engaging in various self-harming behaviors.

Although both boys and girls self-harm, the rate is higher in girls; they also tend to start at an earlier age. However, some experts contend that the types of self-harming behaviors that boys are more likely to engage in—such as punching walls when angry—may not be reported as self-harm in large surveys.

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.


Anxiety, Depression, Self-Sabotage, Suicide

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Harm

It can be difficult to detect when someone is hurting themselves, because self-harm is often done in private and kept hidden out of shame and fear. Fresh cuts and scratches, bite marks, and burns can all be warnings of self-injury when they occur frequently. Other physical signs may include scars, bruises, broken bones, and bald patches, particularly those that indicate a repeated pattern of self-harm.

Pay attention to individuals who seem especially prone to accidents and who wear long sleeves or long pants even in hot weather; these behaviors may be attempts to disguise self-injury. People who self-harm tend to keep sharp objects close at hand and readily available. They may also show signs of depression or emotional unpredictability, such as making comments about their sense of hopelessness or worthlessness.

How to Stop Someone From Hurting Themselves

Anyone who is struggling with self-harm should, first and foremost, seek help. Most often, this is a therapist specialized in self-injury, who can help the individual understand the root causes of their behavior and practice healthier coping mechanisms.

Help can also come from friends, partners, or other trusted loved ones. When an individual experiences an urge to self-harm, talking about one's feelings with a close other—even if self-harm isn’t discussed directly—can help mitigate the urge and help to make sense of difficult emotions.

In addition, 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.

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