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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Mental Health and Self-Injury

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Self injury, also called self-harm, self-mutilation, or simply cutting, is defined as any intentional injury to one's own body. Usually, self-injury leaves marks or causes tissue damage. Self-injury can involve any of the following behaviors:

  • Cutting
  • Burning (or "branding" with hot objects)
  • Excessive body piercing or tattooing
  • Picking at skin or re-opening wounds
  • Hair-pulling (trichotillomania)
  • Head-banging
  • Hitting (with hammer or other object)
  • Bone-breaking

Most who engage in self-injury act alone rather than in groups. They also attempt to hide their behavior.

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Who Is More Likely to Engage in Self-Injury?

Self-injury occurs across the spectrum; the behavior is not limited by education, age, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or religion. However, self-injury occurs more often among:

  • Adolescent females
  • People who have a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • People who have co-existing problems of substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or eating disorders
  • Individuals who were often raised in families that discouraged expression of anger
  • Individuals who lack skills to express their emotions and lack a good social support network

What Leads to Self-Injury?

Self-injury usually occurs when people face what seem like overwhelming or distressing feelings. It can also be an act of rebellion and/or rejection of parents' values and a way of individualizing oneself. Sufferers may feel that self-injury is a way of:

  • Temporarily relieving intense feelings, pressure, or anxiety.
  • Being a means to control and manage pain - unlike the pain experienced through physical or sexual abuse or trauma.
  • Providing a way to break through emotional numbness (the self-anesthesia that allows someone to cut without feeling pain).
  • Asking for help in an indirect way or drawing attention to the need for help.
  • Attempting to affect others by manipulating them, trying to make them care, trying to make them feel guilty, or trying to make them go away.

Self-injury also may be a reflection of a person's self-hatred. Some self-injurers are punishing themselves for having strong feelings that they were usually not allowed to express as children. They also may be punishing themselves for somehow being bad and undeserving. These feelings are an outgrowth of abuse and a belief that the abuse was deserved.

Although self-inflicted injury may result in life-threatening damage, it is not considered to be suicidal behavior.

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