What is Self Harm?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2018
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Self harm or self-injury is the act of inflicting harm on yourself. It may be known by terms like “cutting,” and it is usually behavior that should not be considered as suicidal. Most people who practice self-harm do not do so to die, but instead to gain emotional relief or to briefly feel in control of their own pain. The urge to harm yourself physically may arise from emotional conditions that can increase risk for suicide, and in most cases the behavior is seen as something people are deeply ashamed about and may have difficulty stopping. It is rarely, as many people mistakenly think, used to gain the attention of other people.

In most cases, self harm is considered a disease in itself, though it may also be a symptom of a mood disorder or borderline personality disorder. Certain other conditions like anorexia and bulimia are also viewed as self harm though they may arise from other causes.

Body hatred or distortion of body image isn’t always the common factor of self-injurers. Each person who suffers from this condition may have different reasons for harming him or herself. Yet many who hurt themselves — through a variety of methods — view the practice as not only something of which they are ashamed, but also something that helps bring them relief from psychological pain. A bleeding cut that is self-inflicted may be the real manifestation of emotional pain, and letting the blood flow briefly may be cathartic.


While this reasoning may seem strange to a person who does not practice self-injury, it is remarkable that self-injurers often see their behavior as a means of escaping emotional issues or a means of resolving them. The behavior can then become addictive, bringing self-injurers a sense of peace or a rush when they hurt themselves. Much like drinking alcohol may be for alcoholics, self harm may momentarily make a person feel “better,” but then make a person feel worse and more at risk for hurting him or herself again.

Statistics on self harm suggest that women may be three to four times more likely to be at risk for these behaviors than men. Common risk factors may include underlying mental illness, poor self-esteem, previous sexual or emotional abuse, problems with body image, or deep stress and things like loss of a close loved one. While the behavior is not viewed as intentionally suicidal, it may become so, and a person who hurts herself may go overboard and risk death by accident. Anyone who does commit these behaviors should be understood as at risk, particularly if their methods are drastic.

While media tends to portray teen girls and young adults as the most common figureheads for self harm, the behaviors are not exclusive to young people. A study in 1987 published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found an alarming statistic among elderly patients in hospitals in the UK. As many as 5% may commit some forms of self harm.

There is help for people who are struggling with self harm. Many people respond to therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, and diagnosis can also help determine if a person might need medication to treat underlying mental illness. A combination of medication and talk therapy often assists in overcoming this challenging condition. There are also self mutilators anonymous programs structured on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-program. Some conduct online meetings for those interested in getting help.



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