Self-harm is a difficult topic to grapple with. Many people who have a history of self-harming behavior can explain pretty simply why they do it: it makes them feel better. However, for people who have no history of this behavior it can be hard to understand. Why would someone who is already in pain want to create more pain? This post will answer that question and give you a deeper understanding about self harm.
Other Terms for Self-Harm
Let’s start with something simple and looking at the different terms that are used to talk about self-harm. Maybe you have heard these words and are wondering what the difference is between them. Although many of them are used interchangeably, there are some key differences that distinguish them. Here is a list of words that are often associated with self-harm and their definitions.
Self-Harm: Used generally to describe behavior where someone hurts him or herself intentionally. This term can refer to someone who is harming himself with or without the intention of suicide. However, it is generally used to talk about behavior that is nonsuicidal.
Nonsuicidal Self-Injurious Behavior: This is often the clinical term that is used by doctors or therapists to talk about self-harm. If we break it down a little we can start to understand what it means. The word nonsuicidal lets us know that we are specifically talking about someone who is harming themself without the intention of killing themself. Self-injurious is just what it sounds like, causing injury to oneself.
Self-Mutilation: This term refers to the many different ways that someone can physically hurt themslef. The term self-harm can refer to physical or emotional self-harming, but self-mutilation specifically refers to damage to the physical body.
Self-Cutting: This specifically refers to people who harming themselves’ by cutting the skin.
Self-Punishment: The act of hurting oneself in response to some other unwanted behavior. An example of this might be self-harming in response to overeating.
6 Different Types of Self-Harm
There are many different ways that someone can go about hurting themself. People can self-harm both by damaging their physical body and by causing themself emotional pain. Often when people think about self-injurious behavior they think of people who cut themselves. This is with good reason, cutting is the most common type of self-harm. One study found that 70% – 90% of people who injure themselves do so by cutting.
However, people do use other methods. It is important to be familiar with the other methods people use to hurt themselves so that we can get people help who might be exhibiting these behaviors.
How Do People Self-Harm?
Burning – up to 35%
Head Banging – up to 44%
Cutting – up to 90%
This one was already defined above. To reiterate, it is when someone scratches or cuts the skin. Often people think of cuts on the wrists, but people might cut or scratch themselves anywhere on the body.
2. Head-banging or hitting
When someone engages in this behavior they often bang their head against a wall. They might also hit their fists against their head or use another object to do so.
People who do this often burn the skin with a lighter or lit cigarettes. You might see signs of this is someone has visible and repeated burn marks on their skin.
4. Hair pulling
Some people hurt themselves by pulling out their hair. This might include hear on the scalp, the eyebrows, or eyelashes. Hair pulling can also be a disorder in itself called trichotillomania.
5. Skin Picking
People who self-harm by skin picking might pick at small blemishes on the skin. The effects of skin picking can be observed by seeing small circular scars on the skin where it has been picked. Skin picking has been associated with the use of some drugs and other psychological disorder so it is important to differentiate if this is self-harm by itself or part of a larger problem.
6. Mental or Emotional Self-Harm
Some individuals hurt themselves not my inflicting physical pain but rather by causing harm that is mental or emotional. This might include excessively negative self-talk.
Why People Hurt Themselves
Psychological research studies have looked at why people turn to self-injurious behavior. Of all the reasons there is one that is the most common. Hurting oneself for some people helps them to alleviate psychological discomfort (http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000240). One of the ways that self-harm can reduce mental stress is by taking attention away from the mental stress.
When some kind of acute harm is being caused it can take all of the person’s attention away from what is going on in the mind. For a moment, the brain is overwhelmed by this new and important event so it stops thinking about other things. Some people who self-harm might have some very difficult that is chronically on their mind. This can include trauma, anxiety, depression, or many other things. So, hurting themselves can be a few moments of a break from thinking about these very difficult things.
The Myth of Wanting Attention
You have probably heard somewhere from someone that people who hurt themselves are only doing it as “a cry for help” or because they want attention. However, psychology studies find over and over that when people are asked why they self-harm they very rarely say it is because they want to get attention.
This could be because people do not want to admit that they self-harm for attention. However, it could also be that people really do not self harm for attention as much as we thought they do! The consistent finding is psychological research is that people self-harm to reduce emotional pain.
Stories of Self-Harm from Real People
It is important to listen to people when they express what function something serves. The people who do self-harm are the ones who know the most about why they do it, so let’s listen to what they say. All of the names have been changed to respect the privacy of the individuals who bravely shared their stories with us.
“I started cutting myself a little when I was about 12 years old. My parents got divorced and I was really sad but I didn’t have anyone that I could talk to. I used the razor that was in my bathroom and I made some cuts on my wrist. It hurt but it also made me feel better for a minute. For just a second I didn’t have to think about my parents getting divorced anymore. The school caught me cutting so I had to go to therapy. For a while I just started cutting my ankles and inside my thighs where no one could see. But after I went to therapy I felt better and I just kind of stopped.”
~ Katie, age 14
“I’ve been banging my head for pretty much as long as I can remember. I asked my parents recently and they said that I started doing it when I was a little kid. I had something bad happen to me when I younger but I didn’t really know about it until this year. I just know that I always had thoughts that were so brutal and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. When they kept coming into my head I would start hitting it against a table or a wall and then it would make them stop for a little bit. When I got older I also started drinking and doing drugs. That also helped me feel better too. But now I have been sober for a few months and I haven’t been hurting myself as much either.”
~ Brendan, age 22
“Ever since I got help I have been thinking a lot about why I used to self-harm. At first, I really thought that I was just overreacting to things that were happening in my life. During my last year of high school all of my friends just dropped me out of the blue and started spreading all kinds of rumors about me. I felt so alone. It was this time that everyone was having fun and going to parties and literally no one would even talk to me. I started self-harming and it kind of made me feel better. Now that I am in therapy I don’t think I was overreacting I just think that I didn’t really have a better solution for feeling depressed and lonely.”
~ Cassandra, age 19
Who is at Risk?
Adolescents are generally thought to be at higher risk for self-harm than adults. One study found that the prevalence of self-harm for adolescents is around 8%. The same study found that adolescent girls were at slightly higher risk than adolescent boys. About 9% of girls cut themselves compared to 6.7% of boys. According to another study the prevalence for adults is significantly lower at 5.9%. These researchers found that the average age of onset was 16 years old.
Additionally, people who have a diagnosed mental disorder might be more likely to exhibit self-injurious behavior. For example, self-harm is a common symptom among people with borderline personality disorder. However, this does not mean that just because someone hurts themself they have a diagnosable disorder.
Help is Available
If you know someone who is hurting themslef the best thing you can do for them is to try and get them help. This might mean talking to helping professional who might be able to guide you and let you know what to do. It might also mean talking to your friend directly. Self-harm can be physically and psychologically dangerous so it is important to take it seriously.
If you are struggling with self-harm, you are not alone. Please reach out for support so that you do not have to do this by yourself. You can always contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. You can also call us at (888) 561-0868 .