What is Self-Injury?

By: Chris Anderson Psy.D.

Self-injurious behavior (SIB) is self-harm, self-mutilation, or the deliberate act of causing pain or injury to your own body. Self-injurious behavior usually takes the form of cutting or burning, but can include scratching headbanging, or any other form of injury.

Who does Self-Injury?

Self-injurious behavior can occur at any age and any demographic; however, it is most common in teenagers and young adults. One recent study found that 6-14% of adolescent boys and 17-30% of adolescent girls engage in self-injury at some point. Most adults who engage in self-injury either have mental health issues or a history of self-injurious behavior.

Why People Injure Themselves?

Contrary to common perception, self-injurious behavior is rarely about suicidal ideation or intentions. Interestingly, it is typically about pent up and intense emotions that the person is struggling to deal with. Many people stumble upon this strategy to escape and avoid difficult emotions. When people engage in self-injury, pain receptors are activated and the brain goes into emergency mode to identify and alleviate the source of pain and injury. In the process, the brain prioritizes the physical pain from the self-injury and pushes all the emotions to the side in order to deal with the more immediate crisis at hand – the pain. In short, the infliction of physical pain helps get rid of the distressing emotions at the moment because our brain is more focused on the source of physical pain. Sadly, many people who use self-injury as a coping mechanism report that the physical pain they experience from self-injury is not nearly as bad as the emotional pain that they feel. In sum, self-injury over time becomes a coping strategy for troubling emotions and a way to escape and avoid them.

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Injury

It is often difficult to tell when someone is engaging in self-injury. Due to embarrassment, shame, and fear that loved ones may intervene, most people engaged in self-injury do so in private and attempt to conceal it. Often, they engage in self-injury on areas of the body that are less often seen by others. Some people perform self-injury of their stomach area or thighs because they are generally covered by clothing. Although arms are commonplace to cut oneself, there can be an increased risk of it being seen. Occasionally, people are “found out” when changing, or in swimsuits, or sometimes not until much later when scars are discovered. Obviously, any fresh cuts, scratches, or burns, can be a sign of self-injury. Probably more telling can be the response to an inquiry. If the person is dismissive or defensive about how they got the injury, that can be a red flag for self-injury. Scars, bruises, or bald patches that are seen over a period of time can also be suggestive of self-injury. Also wearing long sleeves and panta, especially in hot weather, can be a sign of an attempt to cover up self-injury.

What Can I Do If Someone I Love is Self-Injuring?

The best thing you can do is to respond with compassion and empathy. Realize they are struggling with difficult emotions and are using this as a coping mechanism. Encourage them to seek help and find healthier coping skills so they don’t need to rely on this method. You can offer yourself as a support person to help process issues and concerns or steer them toward a professional to assist with gaining more effective skills for coping.

If you are engaging in self-injury and want to learn better-coping skills, feel free to contact IPC so you can schedule a consultation with one of our psychologists or psychiatrists so we can help discuss treatment options. Please call us now at 763-416-4167, or request an appointment on our website: WWW.IPC-MN.COM so we can sit down with you and complete a thorough assessment and help you develop a plan of action that will work for you. Life is too short to be unhappy. Find the peace of mind you deserve.

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