It’s not about physical pain, it’s about emotional distress

Self-Harm: What You Need to Know

Self-harm or self-injury is literally hurting yourself on purpose. It may involve cutting or burning the skin, pulling out hair or even picking at existing wounds to prevent them from healing. Whatever the method, any time someone deliberately hurts themself, it is classified as self-harm. So now we’ve defined it, but understanding it is a little more difficult.

Where does the urge to self-harm come from? It can come from overwhelming anger, pent up frustration, or emotional pain. Some people might yell or cry or lash out. For others, self-harm may feel like a release. But why? According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness, for some people, injuring themselves stimulates the body’s endorphins or pain-killing hormones, which can (temporarily) improve their mood. And for someone whose emotions have become very dulled or suppressed, causing pain allows them to feel something besides numbness.

Self-harm male

What’s Behind the Urge to Self-Harm?

Hurting yourself — or thinking about hurting yourself — isn’t really about causing pain (that’s just a side effect). It’s actually a sign of emotional distress. And it’s important to know that self-harm is not a mental illness, it’s a behavior that indicates a need for better coping skills. Many who self-harm say they find the behavior to be a form or release. But while it may initially offer some relief, uncomfortable emotions can grow more intense if someone continues to use self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Several illnesses are associated with self-harm, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although engaging in self-harm doesn’t always signal one of these other disorders.

People self-harm to:

  • Process their negative feelings
  • Distract themselves from their negative feelings
  • Feel something physical, particularly if they are feeling numb
  • Develop a sense of control over their lives
  • Punish themselves for things they think they’ve done wrong
  • Express emotions that they are otherwise embarrassed to show


It’s important to note that self-harm isn’t the same as attempting suicide, but it is still a symptom of emotional pain and needs to be taken seriously. Also, if someone is hurting themself, they may be at an increased risk of feeling suicidal. For these reasons and more, it’s important to get help to learn to process those underlying emotions in a healthier way.

The Effects of Self-Harm

In addition to the physical scars left by frequent cutting or burning, self-harm can also cause feelings of shame. Substance use can make the practice even more dangerous. Drinking alcohol or doing drugs while hurting yourself increases the risk of a more severe injury than intended. Self-harm also takes time and energy away from other things you value. Skipping class to self-harm or avoiding social occasions to prevent people from seeing your scars is a sign that your habit is negatively affecting your life and relationships. Avoiding friends and loved ones out of a fear that they may not understand or feeling ostracized can lead to loneliness and depression, making the urge to self-harm even more intense.

While everyone is different, those who self-injure often follow certain patterns. The practice usually occurs in private. It is often done in a controlled or even ritualistic way, leaving a pattern on the skin. In addition to cutting, scratching, burning, or carving words or symbols into the skin, self-harm can also take the form of self-hitting, head banging, or punching. It may also look like piercing the skin with sharp objects or inserting objects under the skin, according to NAMI. Many people self-injure a few times and then stop. But for others, self-injury can become a long-term, repetitive behavior.

Self-Harm Warning Signs

  • Scars, often in patterns
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks or other wounds
  • Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury
  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability
  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness

Source: Mayo Clinic

Advice for Friends and Loved Ones

If a friend or loved one comes to you for help, one of the best things you can do is simply listen. Even if you don’t fully understand the problem, let them know you’re supportive and want to help them find some answers. Don’t ever dismiss someone’s pain or try to laugh it off because it makes you uncomfortable or you’re not sure how to respond. They don’t need you to have all the answers, but you can help them find someone more experienced with this issue who can point them in the right direction. There are experienced professionals and trusted programs that are ready and willing to help.

Depressed male

Help for Self-harm

Treatment for self-harm will include getting to the root of why the person is hurting themself in the first place. They will then identify other healthier ways to get the same result. Learning to deal with their emotions instead of burying them or expressing them in harmful ways is also a big part of the process. And uncovering any undiagnosed mental health issues and treating those is a big piece of the puzzle as well. Of course, you can’t begin to get help if you don’t tell someone what you’re going through. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or other adult and let them know you need their support.

Some problems are too big to fix on your own. Claudia Black Young Adult Center can help you determine what isn’t working, create a new roadmap for the future, and give you the tools you need to move forward with confidence.

While it may seem odd, the urge to self-harm isn’t uncommon, especially in adolescents and young adults.” – The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

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