Self-Injury Explained

Topics: Cutting, Emotional Health

Everyone copes with emotions differently. Some people choose to open up and talk about their feelings. Others prefer to distract themselves when they’re upset by reading a book or going on the computer. Others might listen to music, hang out with a friend or watch a funny movie. These are examples of healthy ways of coping. Sometimes people deal with their emotions with the urge to harm themselves through behaviors such as cutting.

Self-injury is when a person deliberately hurts themself to cope with overwhelming emotions like anger, anxiety or sadness. However, people rarely feel better after they self-injure. Often the guilt and shame make them feel worse.

Self-injury isn’t about suicide. Individuals don’t mean to kill themselves when they self-injure, even though accidental death does sometimes occur. Other complications of self-injury include infection, scars or other permanent damage to the body.

Signs & Symptoms

Self-injury is a very secretive behavior and people usually cover up the marks and scars, so it can be hard to spot. Usually, self-injury is impulsive but sometimes it can be planned and methodical. Often, people who self-injure are also dealing with conditions like depression, anxiety disorders or eating disorders. Here are some common signs that someone may be self-injuring:

• Scars from burns or cuts that the person can’t explain
• Head banging
• Pulling hair
• Picking at the skin
• Bruises
• Broken bones
• Pinching
• Biting
• Punching
• Using sharp objects on the skin
• Carving out symbols in the skin
• Keeping sharp objects around that don’t belong
• Claiming to be clumsy
• Wearing clothing that doesn’t fit the season, such as pants and long-sleeved shirts during the summer
• Spending a lot of time alone
• Low self-esteem
• Tough time expressing emotions or dealing with them


There are various reasons why self-injurers harm themselves, but for the most part, it serves as a coping strategy. It gives them temporary relief and reduces anxiety, but this relief doesn’t last. Some people feel numb and self-injure to “feel something.” Others might want attention or get other people to do things for them which they otherwise wouldn’t do. Still, others self-injure to punish themselves for supposed flaws or feelings of self-hatred.

Certain factors can increase your risk for self-injury, such as family history of self-injury, childhood abuse (particularly sexual abuse), stressful or traumatic life events, abuse of alcohol or drugs, impulsivity, poor coping skills and being self-critical. Self-injury has also been linked to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder.

While self-injury usually isn’t about suicide, people who injure themselves are much more likely to eventually have a suicide attempt because of the connection to other emotional problems such as depression. Self-injury and related conditions are treatable, so if you or a friend are struggling, it’s important to speak up as soon as possible. Learn more about dealing with self-injury.

Treating Cutting and Self-Injury

It’s often hard to overcome self-injury on your own, but a professional can help you find healthy ways to cope and feel better. Everyone’s treatment plan is different and it’s important to be open and honest with your counselor so they can find the best plan for you. Treatment may include talk therapy to help identify your triggers for self-injuring and to learn healthier ways to cope with painful feelings, tolerate distress, express emotions and build self-acceptance. Some treatment plans also include medications to treat depression or anxiety.

You can help make your treatment most effective by:

Sticking with the Plan. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight and it’s important to attend all your appointments, stick to your medication schedule and take care of yourself.

Practice healthy ways to relieve stress. Try healthy coping strategies like yoga, meditation, journaling, walking or talking with a friend.

Avoid drugs and alcohol. These substances can increase the likelihood that a person self-injures. Also, drugs and alcohol heighten the risk for accidental life-threatening injuries and death.

Talk to Others: It can be very therapeutic to talk to other people who are dealing with similar issues and can understand your situation. Many schools and communities offer support groups for people recovering from self-injury. It can be scary at first to attend and speak up in these groups, but it becomes an important part of many peoples’ treatment plans.