Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is defined as the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue, usually done without the intent of suicide. Self harm has a stigma attached to it, with non-suffers often assuming the only reason for this behaviour is to garner ‘attention’. However, this behaviour is often routed in psychological suffering and provides a function for the sufferer.
Self-harm is often associated with a history of trauma, including emotional and sexual abuse. Some use it as a coping mechanism to provide temporary relief of intense feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress, emotional numbness, or a sense of failure.
Studies also provide strong support for a self-punishment function. Often those that self harm have strong feelings of guilt. They believe they deserve to be punished for some perceived failing, so they inflict harm on themselves. Punishing ones self has been found to relieve these feelings of guilt. In one study, participants who were made to feel guilty by depriving a fellow student of a few lottery tickets were willing to keep their hands in freezing ice water for significantly longer periods of time.
Another reason people may self harm is to avoid disassociating. Self harm may be the only way the individual is able to feel like they are alive and real. It is used as a grounding strategy to interrupt the disassociation process.
Others use self harm as a form of sensation-seeking. Self harm allows them to feel calm and in control. The body’s endorphin release can provide this calming effect, the antidote to the body’s activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Some individuals may wish to be cared for and inflicting harm on themselves can be a way to get the affection and attention of those close to them. Usually these individuals have a history of abandonment and may fear feeling uncared for.
In conclusion, there are many reasons someone may self harm and there is almost always a deeper reason for doing so. It is often a coping technique and it cannot be taken away without allowing the individual to find something else to replace the behaviour. Finding the route cause of the behaviour can help you find healthier ways of coping. If you struggle with self harm, please seek help.