6 Reasons Why People Self-Harm

Self-harm is when a person hurts themselves on purpose.  And according to statistics on the To Write Love On Her Arms website, 14 to 24 percent of young people have done so at least once.  There are different forms of self-harm, some of which include scratching, cutting, and burning, and people who engage in such activities may have a variety of personal reasons for doing so.  No matter the reason, the seriousness of the issue cannot be overstated. Especially when you consider the fact that although self-harm isn’t the same as a suicide attempt, the repeated pattern of hurting oneself can make suicide more likely (Mayo Clinic).

There are ways to tame the desire to injure oneself and prevent harm from being done, but that doesn’t mean utilizing prevention methods is easy.  There are still roadblocks on the path to getting help. The lack of understanding and stigma attached to self-harm is a key example and can be incredibly detrimental to those who struggle with the behaviors.  They may have heard jokes made or judgments passed about it, which leads people to fear opening up about their feelings and their struggles.

We can’t allow those roadblocks to be built up.  We can’t let people suffer in silence. Maybe the following bullet points will give people a better insight into why people self-harm and open up a healthy conversation about it.

1. To “feel something”

People who self-harm often explain that they experience emotional numbness.  Or, they are “flat” in terms of what they feel. This stifled range of emotions is most likely due to the fact that self-harm can be a symptom of a much larger issue, depression (Better Help), and can cause a person to crave any feeling, even if it’s a bad one.

I’d say the most frequently given advice is to instead snap a rubber band to your wrist to get the same feeling of something.  It is less injurious and should have a similar effect.

2. Because explaining emotions in words is difficult

Conversely, people might feel too much instead of feeling nothing.  There is a complex mixture of emotions that lead a person to injure his or her own body.  He or she may be feeling panicky, angry, lonely, guilty, worthless, or any combination of strong emotions.  And when a person is already overwhelmed with those emotions, they often become hard to regulate. (Mayo Clinic)  Furthermore, emotional distress can be difficult to describe. And being unable to describe what you’re experiencing is obviously frustrating because it takes away some of the hope of understanding it. 

I’ve taken to using “Feeling Wheels,” lists of common emotions, and other available resources to better allow me to explain how I’m feeling, or journaling, where I can think about my feelings more carefully.

3. To see emotional pain physically and feel in control

For some, it makes more sense when you can see the pain, when you can look at a physical manifestation of what’s going on inside your head.  Because sometimes, people with depression or anxiety don’t know why they feel what they feel. People who self-harm often do so because they’d rather not be swimming in a pool of mental confusion.  Physical pain is specifically caused by that thing a person does to hurt themselves. There’s a reason. And to hurt themselves gives them an apparent feeling of control.

A commonly-used counteract is to take a permanent marker and draw or write on your skin.  The fact that the ink is semi-permanent symbolizes the way that self-harm can leave scars, and it breaks the mental rumination that leads to acting on urges.

4. To release endorphins and feel a brief relief

For self-injurers, to experience a jolt of physical pain often yanks them back to an unencumbered reality where they feel like they can live in the moment and forget their intense emotions.  The reason could be the chemicals, called endorphins, released when the injury happens. Endorphins actually reduce pain experienced as they are the body’s way of protecting itself (Psychology Today).  Between the distracted relief and the neurochemical response that ease emotional intensity, people may become addicted to the action and routine of hurting themselves.

Running has the same endorphin-releasing effects, so if you’re able to, get outside and get moving.

5. Due to poor impulse control

There are many psychological reasons a person may struggle to control their impulses.  Reckless impulsivity is a symptom of both borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder.  The same is true for ADHD, where too much energy and too many thoughts make fighting temptation more difficult.  And the over-activation of anxiety can make a person want to do something to prevent the panic from escalating even more.

Being aware of the tendency to be impulsive is also a way to fight the problem.  With an issue as confusing as self-harm, knowledge and self-awareness are powerful.

6. Because they think they deserve suffering

Depression is a terrible monster that snakes its way into what a person thinks.  It whispers negatives in the ears of those who suffer from it, leaving them to ruminate on the same upsetting thoughts for a long time.  This is why people who self-harm have the potential to believe they deserve the emotional pain they’re in and more. People who’ve self-harmed in the past might also feel shame or guilt, ultimately leading them to do so again and again in a vicious cycle (NAMI).

If someone you know is engaging in these dangerous self-harm behaviors, you can help by paying attention, listening to him or her. offering support without judgment, giving information about resources and professional help, and learning more about it yourself.  You should also keep in mind that what they’re doing could be part of a larger issue that needs to be tackled with an idea of the larger picture. (NAMI)

If you are struggling with the urge to hurt yourself, you can always reach out for (and then accept) support.  There is always someone there, and you’re never as alone as you think you are. Furthermore, if you step back and see how self-harm is really affecting you, you might be able to make a conscious choice to stop and then work at it.

No one deserves to feel so low that they wind up hurting themselves.  So educate yourself. Arm yourself with understanding, knowledge, and coping skills.  And be assured that help and hope are out there!




Fader, Sarah. “When Depression Is Not Sadness: Being Emotionally Numb.” Betterhelp, BetterHelp, 17 Feb. 2018, https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/depression/when-depression-is-not-sadness-being-emotionally-numb/?utm_source=AdWords&utm_medium=Search_PPC_c&utm_term=_b&utm_content=82966718848&network=g&placement=&target=&matchtype=b&utm_campaign=6459244691&ad_type=text&adposition=1t1&gclid=Cj0KCQjw_5rtBRDxARIsAJfxvYDG5BBZHqALWvPG4qprIaQ_HXh9DsenqJBVwCSqwDS5wkOdK8R85TIaAoytEALw_wcB.


“Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-scarred-soul/200910/myths-and-misconceptions-self-injury-part-ii.


“Self Harm.” NAMI, https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Self-harm.


“Self-Injury.” TWLOHA, https://twloha.com/find-help/help-by-topic/self-injury/.

“Self-Injury/Cutting.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Dec. 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/self-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20350950.

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