Self-harm refers to any intentional act of hurting yourself. These acts can include cutting, burning, hitting, and inserting dangerous objects into yourself. Some experts also argue that certain compulsive behaviors, like substance use or disordered eating, also embody a form of self-harm.
Although it's largely stigmatized, self-harm is common, especially among people with mental illness. Research shows that about 17% of people engage in self-harm at some point during their lifetime. The average age of onset is 13 years old.
But what drives this behavior? And what causes this pattern to be so pervasive? Let's get into some of the common causes.
Desire to Release Emotions
Self-harm often manifests as a way to move away from numbness. Many people report that they would rather feel physical pain than nothing at all. Therefore, self-harm acts as a way of shifting emotional distress into a physical problem.
Emotional expression can be challenging, particularly if you didn't learn this skill during childhood. We all feel sadness, anger, shame, and fear. But if you don't know what to do with it, the feelings can be so overwhelming or intense that you may block them out altogether. But this strategy doesn't stop the emotions. It just pauses and numbs them.
Self-harm is a physical way of revealing emotions. It's a literal expression of the pain the person experiences.