Self-injury — also known as self-harm — is simply the act of inflicting deliberate injury onto oneself, in order to relieve emotional pain. The most common form of self injury is making shallow cuts onto one’s skin, usually on the arm or leg. It is a type of coping mechanism used by a person when their emotional pain is simply too great to handle.
Why do people self injure? Physical pain is more real and a more concrete sensation to experience for some people than emotional pain. By inflicting physical pain, the emotional pain is temporarily relieved.
Self-injury tends to provide a temporary relief, therefore someone who self-injures will often have to continue to do so in order to continue to enjoy relief from emotional pain. Many times when a person self-injures, they do so only when under extreme stress.
While self injury has become more commonplace in the past decade, it is not a common way of dealing with emotional pain. Self injury is more common amongst teenagers and young adults than older adults.
Some people consider taking drugs or alcohol as a form of self harm. Unfortunately, such a broader definition can mean that any behavior taken to an extreme — that is, that results in a person’s own harm — can be considered “self harm,” even if harm to oneself was not intended (as usually the case with drugs or alcohol, which are primarily used as a method for escape or personal pleasure).
Self-injury is often caused by the lack of more appropriate coping skills. Therefore treatment for self injury focuses on helping a person learn to cope with their emotional extremes using more adaptive coping mechanisms that don’t rely on actual physical harm to one’s body. This can often start with adapting other less extreme self-injury behavior to replace the usual self-injury behavior (such as cutting). Substituting gripping an ice cube in one’s hand, for instance, can be just as painful, but causes less physical harm.