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An overview of the issue of self-injury


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.