In graduate school, I chose to focus my studies on the causes for self-injury and consequently wrote a literature review of this topic for my Master’s thesis and studied clinician opinion to underlying causes for self-injury for my doctoral dissertation. This is a huge topic of concern in which I have a lot to say and will be making several posts.
The causes for self-injury are vast! In years past, society thought this behavior was for attention seeking or a cry for help. Some parents have expressed concern that their teen will pick up cutting because their friends are doing it (copy cat behavior). As psychologists (including myself) have studied this phenomenon, we’ve discovered depths of complexity.
When people are in emotional pain, be it from abuse, neglect, anxiety, and/or depression, and they don’t have proper support that includes a nonjudgmental approach, their pain has to go somewhere. Some people resort to sensation seeking activities such as retail therapy, speed racing, or skydiving. Others turn their pain inwards and attack their self-esteem, identity, or intelligence.
Self-injury can mean many things. It can include cutting, burning, scratching, intentional bruising, or breaking bones. Self-destructive behaviors include self-defeating statements such as, “I suck.” Self-mutilation can include piercings, tattoos, nail biting, or skin picking. Some cultures encourage self-mutilation as a sign of growth and accomplishments (African tribes). Even in the United States, tattoos are a sign of art and identification. But some of these actions are a display of great pain, struggle, and desperation.
The bottom line is that any form of self-injury is a symptom of greater pain. Some people hurt themselves due to depression and a poor sense of self worth, or to release built up adrenaline from high levels of anxiety or panic attacks. Some people self-injure in order to avoid depersonalization or dissociation. This is a condition in which the individual does not feel connected to their body. It has been described as feeling as though they are watching themselves from the outside or in worst cases, completely disconnect and fail to recall their actions. Self-injury helps to ground them and make them feel alive. Some people who have been abused will self-injure to make themselves less desirable to their abuser or to cope with feelings of guilt, shame, and lack of control.
Regardless of the reason, self-injury is something to be taken seriously! Though most of the time it is not a sign of intentions to end one’s life, if left untreated, self-injurious behaviors can result in suicide attempts. Because self-injury causes a release of endorphins and adrenaline, it can have an addictive quality to it that requires more injury or injury that is more severe. It becomes a slippery slope!
If you notice this behavior in your teen or you notice self-deprecating thoughts within yourself, please reach out! Let a qualified professional guide you to a healthier, more fulfilling coping strategy.