Self-injurious behavior often begins in adolescence but may persist well into adulthood. These behaviors, which are sometimes referred to as “cutting,” “self-mutilation,” or “self-harm” are emotionally and physically painful attempts to cope with seemingly unbearable feelings. While a person may experience temporary relief from the emotional pain, the effect is typically short-lived and followed by intense feelings of guilt and shame. Because multiple and/or forceful self-injuries can be dangerous and may unintentionally lead to complicated medical problems, or even death, they should not be ignored.
What is self-injury?
Self-injury is behavior that is employed to intentionally injure or harm one’s own body, typically done in an attempt to cope with difficult emotions. Common self-injurious behaviors include cutting, scratching, burning, hitting, head banging, and hair pulling, and the injuries are often inflicted when a person is alone. Because self-injury can include cutting on the wrists and/or forearms, it may be confused with a suicide attempt. However, self-injurious behavior is markedly different in that, when a person engages in self-injurious behavior, there is an intent to harm one’s self without the intent to end one’s life.
Why do people self-injure?
Often, people will self-injure when there is too much emotional pain to bear and other coping mechanisms have failed in alleviating that pain. Some describe the self-injurious behavior, such as cutting, as a means of releasing overwhelming emotions. Others self-harm because they have difficulty feeling intense emotions and describe feelings of emotional “numbness.” For a person who feels emotionally blunted, inflicting injury on the body is an attempt to replace the feeling of numbness with a more intense feeling of pain. Self-injurious behaviors are sometimes an attempted distraction from a situation that seems too overwhelming or difficult to handle.
What are signs that someone may be engaging in self-injurious behavior?
Because many people who self-injure also experience feelings of shame associated with the behavior, they may attempt to hide evidence of any injuries. The forearms, stomach, and inner thighs are common places for a person to inflict wounds. Scratches, scabs, numerous Band-Aids, or other signs of multiple cuts/scratches are cause for concern. Also, small burns, such as those inflicted by a cigarette, may leave small red blisters and/or scars on the skin.
What to do if you suspect someone is self-injuring?
Self-injurious behavior is difficult for a person to stop unless the behavior is replaced by a more effective means of coping. Shaming a person and simply directing him/her not to self-harm is ineffective. Instead, it will be important to help the person find a trained mental health professional to talk with about the triggers and emotional ties to the behavior. Self-injurious behavior can be a sign of sexual trauma and is linked to other psychiatric disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Autism, and Substance Abuse. Thus, a thorough evaluation by a clinician who specializes in treating self-injury will be a vital component to ensuring that the person gets the treatment that they need aimed at addressing the specific triggers that they are experiencing.