depressed teenage boy alone in room


Causing physical pain is often a sign of emotional distress

The Basics of Self-Harm

Self-harm or self-injury is literally hurting yourself on purpose. It may involve cutting or burning the skin, pulling out hair or even picking at existing wounds to prevent them from healing. Whatever the method, any time someone deliberately injures themselves, it is classified as self-harm.

Defining it is one thing, but understanding why people self-harm is more difficult. Self-harm is not a mental illness. It’s a behavior that indicates a need for better coping skills. But several illnesses are associated with self-harm, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Engaging in self-harm doesn’t always signal one of these mental health issues. Sometimes, it’s simply a behavior that indicates a need for better coping skills.

According to, people self-harm to:

  • Process their negative feelings
  • Distract themselves from negative feelings
  • Feel something physical, particularly if they are feeling numb
  • Develop a sense of control over their lives
  • Punish themselves for things they think they’ve done wrong
  • Express emotions they are otherwise embarrassed to show

People often keep it a secret, but the urge to self-harm isn’t uncommon, especially in adolescents and young adults. Many overcome it with treatment.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

The Hurt Behind the Urge

Hurting yourself — or thinking about hurting yourself — isn’t really about causing pain. That’s just a side effect. It’s actually a sign of emotional distress. Many who self-harm say it gives them a form or release. But the relief experienced is only temporary. Uncomfortable or overwhelming emotions can intensify if someone continues to self-harm as a coping mechanism.

Where does the urge to self-harm come from? Overwhelming anger, pent up frustration, or emotional pain might cause some people to yell or cry or lash out. Others turn to self-harm to provide a release. But why? According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness, for some people, injuring themselves stimulates the body’s endorphins or pain-killing hormones, which can (temporarily) improve their mood. And for someone whose emotions have become very dulled or suppressed, causing pain allows them to feel something besides numbness.

lonely, depressed teenage boy

Self-harm isn’t the same as attempting suicide — the goal is to cause pain but not end their life. It’s still a symptom of emotional pain that should be taken seriously, though. People who self-harm may be at an increased risk of feeling suicidal. For these reasons and more, it’s important to seek help and learn new ways to process emotional anxiety for a healthier life.

Self-Harm Warning Signs

Sometimes it’s difficult to know if someone is self-harming, but according to the Mayo Clinic, some of the warning signs include:

  • Scars, often in patterns
  • Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, bite marks or other wounds
  • Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
  • Frequent reports of accidental injury
  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity, and unpredictability
  • Statements of helplessness, hopelessness, or worthlessness

More Than Skin Deep

The effects of self-harm are more than skin-deep. Beneath the physical marks left by frequent cutting or burning can lie feelings of deep shame and self-loathing. These negative emotions take time and energy away from other things you value, like spending time with friends, pursuing relationships, or success in education. You may skip class to self-harm or avoid friends and loved ones out of a fear that they may not understand. Those choices often lead to loneliness and depression, making the urge to self-harm even more intense.

While everyone is different, NAMI reports that those who self-injure often follow certain patterns:

  • Self-harm usually occurs in private
  • Self-harm is often done in a controlled or even ritualistic way, leaving a pattern on the skin.
  • Self-harm doesn’t just include cutting, scratching, burning, or carving words or symbols into the skin.
  • Self-harm can also take the form of self-hitting, head banging, punching, piercing the skin with sharp objects, or inserting objects under the skin.

Some people self-injure a few times and then stop, but for others, self-injury can become a long-term, repetitive behavior. Using drugs or alcohol makes self-harm even more dangerous. Drinking alcohol or doing drugs while hurting yourself increases the risk of a more severe injury than intended.

mother comforting teenage boy

Supporting a Loved One

If a friend or loved one comes to you for help, one of the best things you can do is simply listen. Even if you don’t fully understand the problem, let them know you’re supportive and want to help them find some answers. Don’t ever dismiss someone’s pain or try to laugh it off because it makes you uncomfortable or you’re not sure how to respond. They don’t need you to have all the answers, but with your support and guidance, they can find an experienced treatment professional who can help get them on the road to healing.

Help for Self-Harm

At The Meadows Adolescent Center, we understand that teens are especially vulnerable to trauma, addiction, and a variety of mental health issues. Self-harm is a serious symptom of emotional pain, and our treatment approachbegins by getting to the root of that pain. Learning to deal with emotions instead of burying them or expressing them in harmful ways is also a big part of the process. And uncovering any undiagnosed mental health issues and treating those is a big piece of the puzzle as well.

Of course, you can’t begin to get help if you don’t tell someone you need it. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or other adult and let them know you need their support.

Some problems are too big to fix on your own. We exist to help teens navigate the unique challenges of growing up, to change what isn’t working to create an emotionally healthy roadmap for the future.

Nature in Morristown, AZ

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