Self-Harm: Three Things You Might Not Know

Self-harm or self-injury is present in 4% of adults, 15% of adolescents, and between 17-35% among college students. There are many misconceptions around self-harm, so let's set some facts straight.

1. What is self-harm?

Simply put, self-harm is the act of hurting yourself on purpose. The most common method of self-harm is cutting, followed by head banging and burning. Self-harm, or thinking about self-harming, is a sign of emotional distress. Using self-harm as a coping skill can increase the emotional distress around the original uncomfortable emotion(s). People who engage in self-harm behaviors may experience feelings of shame and guilt related to the behaviors. They may go to extreme lengths to hide scars from cutting or burning themselves. 

2. Why do people self-harm?

When an individual self-harms, they are doing so in an attempt to cope with uncomfortable emotions that they are experiencing. Often, a person is unsure of how to deal with overwhelming emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration, or guilt and self-harm is a way for them to cope with emotional pain. Additionally, some individuals may experience emotional numbness and turn to self-harm as a way to feel physical pain if they believe that they are unable to feel emotional pain. 

It's important to note that self-harm behaviors are typically not suicide attempts. Self-harm behaviors are sometimes associated with borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

3. How self-harm is treated

When I work with individuals struggling with self-harm, I use a combination of techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). CBT allows the person to examine the chain of behaviors that leads up to self-harm and identify a place to interrupt the cycle. DBT allows the person to implement distraction and emotional regulation techniques. It also encourages the person to differentiate between their emotional mind and their logical mind before making a decision about engaging in the behavior.

Emily Teegarden