If someone you know is self-harming, listen to them without judgment and tell them they don’t need to keep it a secret. They might need therapy to help them understand their behavior, learn healthier coping strategies and break the cycle of self-injury.
Self-harm is usually driven by intense negative emotions and states of being. These include:
Cutting, or nonsuicidal self-injury, is when someone deliberately hurts themselves with bladed or sharp objects. It’s usually a way to cope with anger, anxiety or depression.
People who cut often have a history of trauma or abuse. It’s more common in people who don’t identify as cisgender (which means they don’t match the sex assigned to them at birth). It’s linked with mental illness, such as PTSD and bipolar disorder.
It’s a dangerous behavior, but there are ways to treat it. It starts with talking to someone you trust – like a friend or family member, doctor or school counselor. It’s best to do this before the self-harm gets out of control.
Keeping the problem secret can make it more difficult to treat. Parents often feel shocked, angry and disbelieving when they discover their child is hurting themselves. They can also experience stress, anxiety, guilt and social isolation. Treatment options include psychiatric hospitalization, medication and therapy. A psychiatrist can prescribe antidepressants if depression is the cause. They can also teach people new ways to cope with emotions and manage distressing thoughts.
People who engage in this behavior systematically rub, scratch or pick at their skin. Often, they target their arms and legs but can damage other areas of their body. They may also scratch or bite their nails. They do not want to show their injury or seek attention like cutting. They may use this behavior to feel more in control of their emotions, or they may use it to relieve itchiness or pain.
People may engage in these types of self-harm to cope with overwhelming anxiety or depression. Some may have been abused as children and now use this behavior to express anger or frustration. Others do not know how to regulate their emotions, and this is an attempt to do so.
Scratching can be very similar to excoriation, so it is important for parents or loved ones to understand the difference between these two behaviors. Psychotherapy, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), can help a person gain more mastery over their negative impulses. Other types of treatment include family therapy and hypnosis.
Burning is a form of self-injury but is not as common as cutting or scratching. It is sometimes referred to as nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) and can be used for emotional relief, punishment, getting attention or escaping a situation. Individuals who engage in NSSI are more likely to have psychiatric comorbidities such as mood disorders, personality disorders and anxiety. Sexual minorities are also at higher risk of NSSI, especially genital self-injury.
People who engage in burning often hide their injuries with long sleeves or pants. They may also keep a stash of tools such as needles, razors and staples that they use to injure themselves. You can tell that someone is engaging in self-injury if you see blood stains on their belongings or find many bandages and tissues in their trash.
Banner Health offers various services for individuals who engage in self-injuring behaviors. Our team of doctors, nurses and mental health specialists can help treat the underlying cause so that the behavior can stop. We can also work to help you overcome the feelings that led to these behaviors in the first place.
Biting is a form of self-harm that involves purposely hurting yourself with teeth. People who bite themselves often do it to punish themselves, relieve tension and stress, feel numbness or unreality, or experience flashbacks. It is also used to control their behavior, escape or avoid low-preferred activities, and reduce pain.
Bite marks can vary in severity from a few superficial scratches (like those on your elbow from playing catch with your friends) to deep wounds that require medical attention. Children may bite themselves in their sleep or when feeling upset. Parents should be vigilant if they notice a sudden increase in biting or if the bites are more serious than normal and could require antibiotics or tetanus shots.
A health professional can recommend therapies to help a child stop engaging in these behaviors. This could include psychological or counseling, parent or family therapy, and teaching more effective coping strategies to manage strong emotions. The best thing you can do as a parent is show your support and love unconditionally and hope they will change.
People who stab themselves use a sharp object to injure their bodies, and it’s usually hidden from others. Stabbing is a more serious form of self-injury and may indicate more severe emotional distress.
Teenagers are the most common group to stab themselves. This behavior is often associated with a history of emotional abuse and unstable family environments. It’s also linked to eating disorders and disturbed sleep patterns.
While self-injury can provide temporary relief, it has lasting negative effects on an individual’s mental health. It increases the risk of major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide. It also makes it harder to deal with difficult emotions and experiences.
The psychiatric disorder that includes self-injury is officially known as nonsuicidal self-injury disorder (NSSID). It is characterized by the repeated act of harming yourself, without suicidal intent, to relieve emotional distress and tension. The disorder has also been called body-focused repetitive behaviors and self-destructive disorders. Self-injury is a sign of a deep emotional problem and needs to be treated with help. Talking to a counselor is an excellent way to help someone with this condition.