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Why do people self-harm?

Your teenage years can be challenging. You may experience painful circumstances like breakups, friendship drama, complicated relationships with your parents, bullying or low self-esteem. It’s normal to feel sad, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, confused, angry or frustrated about these problems. Some people turn to self-harm to get relief from these emotions.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm means hurting yourself on purpose. It can include anything that causes pain and damage to your body, such as:

  • Burning
  • Cutting
  • Picking at wounds
  • Hitting or punching
  • Pulling out hair
  • Piercing your skin with sharp objects
  • Carving symbols or words into your skin

Why people self-harm

You might turn to self-harm to:

  • Control the emotional pain you feel in other areas of your life.
  • Process your feelings.
  • Stop feeling numb.
  • Punish yourself.
  • Express feelings you’re too embarrassed to show.

Most of the time, when people hurt themselves, they’re not doing so as a suicide attempt, but as a way to release painful emotions.

Self-harm isn’t a long-term solution to your problems and can leave lasting consequences, such as scars and mental and emotional issues.

Who’s at risk for self-harm?

Self-harm is usually more common in people who:

  • Have low self-esteem
  • Have mental disorders, such as eating disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and certain personality disorders
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Have friends who self-harm
  • Have experienced abuse or trauma as children
  • Have experienced discrimination or bullying

Warning signs of self-harm

Self-harm may make a person feel ashamed or embarrassed, so they don’t ask for help. Here are some signs someone you know may be harming themselves:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Scars
  • Wearing long pants or sleeves in hot weather
  • Keeping sharp objects nearby for no apparent reason
  • Fresh bruises, cuts, burns or scratches
  • Saying they feel worthless, helpless or hopeless
  • Trouble with their relationships
  • Behavioral and emotional issues like impulsiveness, instability or unpredictability

If someone confides in you that they self-harm, do your best to be as nonjudgmental as possible. Offer to go with them to tell a trusted adult for help.

What to do if you’re hurting yourself

It’s normal to need ways to cope with your feelings, but it’s possible to do so in a healthy, safe way. You don’t have to stay stuck in the cycle of self-harm. Here are some things you can do if you want to hurt yourself.

Remove yourself from the temptation. If you’re tempted to hurt yourself, get away from any object or situation that makes you feel like harming yourself.

Tell a trusted adult. Then, tell an adult who can help. A trusted adult could be a:

  • Parent
  • Grandparent
  • Aunt or uncle
  • Older sibling or cousin
  • Teacher
  • Guidance counselor
  • School nurse
  • Doctor
  • Neighbor
  • Parent of a friend
  • Coach
  • Therapist
  • Police officer

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8355 or Centerstone’s crisis line:

Find healthy ways to cope. Research has shown that meditation and creating art can help people process their emotions. So, the next time you feel like hurting yourself, try listening to a guided meditation in an app or on YouTube or doodling, drawing or playing music.

You can also name why you’re hurting yourself and what feeling you’re after. Then, see if there’s a way to safely get the same result. If you’re looking for a physical sensation, go for a run or take a kickboxing class. If you want to express your emotions, journal in a notebook or on your phone.

Talk to a professional. Self-harm is serious, so talking to a pro is essential. A counselor or therapist can help you figure out why you want to hurt yourself and develop personalized ways to cope. While it can be uncomfortable to open up to a mental health professional, know that it’s their job to help you, not judge you. They can be a powerful resource in helping you get better.

Need more info? Ask an Expert.

MedlinePlus.gov: Self-Harm
NIH: News in Health: Hurtful Emotions
Crisis Text Line

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