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Self-Injury

What Is Self-Injury?

Self-injury, also called self-harm or self-mutilation, 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)
  • 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 can occur in either sex and in any race of people. The behavior is not limited by education, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or religion. However, there are some common factors among people who engage in self-injury. 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 Causes People to Injure Themselves?

Self-injury usually occurs when people face what seem like overwhelming or distressing feelings. Self-injurers may feel that self-injury is a way of:

  • Temporarily relieving intense feelings, pressure, or anxiety
  • Being real, being alive, or feeling something
  • Being able to feel pain on the outside instead of the inside
  • Controlling and managing pain -- unlike the pain experienced through physical or sexual abuse
  • Providing a way to break 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.

Even though there is the possibility that a self-inflicted injury may result in life-threatening damage, self-injury is not considered to be suicidal behavior.

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