Self-injury, also called self-harm, is an act that involves purposely harming oneself through cutting or burning of the skin. It is an unhealthy way of coping with emotional pain, anger and frustration.
While self-injury may bring a sense of calm and relief at the time of the injury, it is usually followed by a feeling of shame and guilt, as well as the return of painful emotions.
Self-injury is considered a behavioral problem and may be linked to a variety of mental disorders such as depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder.
Signs and symptoms of self-injury may include:
- Broken bones
- Social withdrawal
- Frequent accidents or mishaps
- Wearing long sleeved clothing, even in hot weather
- Keeping sharp objects on hand
- Difficulty maintaining personal relationships
- Constant self-doubt
- Behavioral and emotional instability
Forms of self-injury include the following:
- Cutting oneself
- Burning oneself
- Biting oneself
- Punching oneself
- Hair pulling
- Head banging
- Piercing the skin with sharp objects
- Breaking bones
- Carving words or symbols on the skin
Self-injury is the result of an inability to cope in healthy ways with psychological pain related to issues such as personal identity, family troubles, depression, and others. Since self injury is often an impulsive act, most frequently an individual will target the arms, legs or front of the chest because these areas can be easily reached and easily hidden under clothing.
A mix of emotions, such as anger, guilt, loneliness, worthlessness and others, can trigger an individual to harm oneself. Through self-injury, an individual may be trying to:
- Get a sense of control over their own body and feelings
- Manage the stress of life situations through physical pain
- Provide a distraction from painful emotions
- Feel physical pain when feeling overall emotionally empty
- Punish oneself for previous mistakes
Several factors that can increase the risk of self-injury include the following:
- Being female
- Being in early teenage years
- Being under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs
- Having friends who harm themselves
- Having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Having certain mental disorders
Treatment options for self-injury typically involve reaching out to someone who can help, whether it is a professional or family member. Different methods of treatment are based on an individual’s specific issues and whether they have a mental health condition, such as depression.
There are several treatment options for self-injuring behavior. They include:
- Psychotherapy: A type of therapy that involves talking through issues related to self-injuring behavior. The goal of this type of therapy is to identify and manage the issues and learn to cope with stress and emotions that might present themselves.
Several types of individual psychotherapy may be helpful, such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: A type of therapy that involves identifying negative behaviors and replacing them with healthy, positive ones.
- Dialectical behavior therapy: A type of cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches behavioral skills to help manage and cope with stressful situations and emotional challenges.
- Psychodynamic psychotherapy: A type of therapy that involves a recollection of past experiences and suppressed memories to trigger the root of an individual’s emotional difficulties.
- Mindfulness-based therapies: Therapies that involve reducing anxiety and depression by learning to perceive positive thoughts and live in the present.
Other treatment options may include:
- Taking antidepressants or other psychiatric medications to help treat depression or other mental disorders
- In more severe cases, psychiatric hospitalization is recommended
While there is no sure way to prevent a loved one from injuring oneself, there are a few measures that are recommended to help prevent such actions. They include:
- Identifying individuals who are at greater risk of self-injury and offering help
- Encouraging social connections (improving relationship and communication skills)
- Raising awareness through group discussions and educational programs
- Promoting programs that encourage speaking up and seeking help