What is self-injury?
Have you ever had your ears pierced? Have you ever gotten sunburned when you were trying to get a tan? Without thinking about it, most of us are willing to put up with a certain amount of pain. But for most of us, cutting or burning our own skin on a regular basis would be unthinkable.
And yet that's what millions of people do—in the United States and all over the world. They have a disease that causes them to injure themselves—on purpose. Some people cut themselves with a razor, a knife, or a piece of glass. Some people burn themselves with a cigarette or carve words into their arms and legs. People who self-injure have also been known to pull out their own hair, scratch their skin, stick themselves with needles, hit themselves, and even break their own bones.
As strange as these behaviors sound, they are not unusual, and the people who engage in them are not crazy. In fact, you may know someone who self-injures. That's because, in the past 10 years or so, it has become much more common for people to develop this disease, especially teenage girls.
Self-injury (you might also hear it called "cutting," "self-mutilation," "self-harm," or "self-abuse") is not a new illness. Believe it or not, it's been around since the time of the Bible. We haven't heard much about it until recently because most people have been ashamed to admit that they do such painful things to themselves. Also, it seems to have become more common in the last few years. But now scientists are studying more about self-injury and what makes people do it, and more people are coming forward to talk about the problem. That's a good thing, because once people don't have to hide their problems anymore, they can begin to heal. back to top
Why do people hurt themselves?
People who injure themselves have many different reasons for their actions. But it may be surprising to know that most people who self-injure don't want to die. That's why it's very different from suicide. A person who tries to commit suicide
wants to end all feelings, good and bad, whereas someone who self-injures wants to feel better.
More than anything else, a girl who self-injures wants to get relief from terrible emotional pain and from intense feelings that she can't put into words. Often, these are feelings of anger, anxiety, or panic. Other feelings that may cause her to self-injure include depression, loneliness, guilt, emptiness, sadness, racing thoughts, numbness, or alienation.
A girl who self-injures has a hard time managing these feelings and an even harder time talking about them. So she uses her own body to express—in the most concrete way possible—how terrible she feels. In a way, she is telling the world that the physical pain she is inflicting on herself is nothing compared to the awful feelings she has stored up inside.
At first, the injury makes her feel relieved, even peaceful. She also feels a sense of control over her own body—something she desperately wants. She may even believe that the cutting or burning is actually getting rid of her terrible feelings. Of course, as time passes, she realizes that her feelings are still there. She also feels ashamed and guilty about her behavior, and tries to hide her wounds and scars.
But her deeper wounds and scars are emotional ones. Most people who self-injure come from families that are under a lot of stress. As we all know, there is no such thing as a perfect family, and every family has some problems. But too much stress can be harmful to children. When there's a long illness in the family, a death, a divorce, or unemployment, parents can forget to give their children the love and attention they need and deserve. That can make children feel that they are unlovable or that they don't deserve attention. It can also make them angry.
In some families, it's worse than that. Children are abused
—physically, emotionally or sexually—by their parents or other people close to them. This does terrible emotional damage to children. It can make them feel worthless, powerless, and extremely angry.
These kinds of family problems can lead people to injure themselves, usually beginning in adolescence. If a girl has no one to talk with about her feelings, she may have never learned how to express them in healthy ways. So instead of confronting someone when she is angry, she takes it out on her own body. Instead of comforting herself when she is sad or anxious, she inflicts physical pain. It temporarily numbs her and keeps her from feeling anger, sadness, or other uncomfortable emotions.
What's sad is that people who self-injure are often bright, talented, and creative people—overachievers and perfectionists who push themselves hard. They also like to please other people and have learned to cover up their pain with a happy face.
The late Princess Diana of England was one such person. In a television interview, she told the entire world that she had been a cutter, in addition to having an eating disorder. She told the audience that she intentionally cut her arms and legs because "You have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help."
Deep down, people who self-injure do want help. They don't want to hurt themselves. What they do want is to feel safe and secure in the world. back to top
Can the chemicals in a person's brain cause this illness?
Brain chemistry may tell us something about who self-injures and who doesn't. A few researchers have found that people who self-injure tend to be extremely angry, anxious, aggressive, and impulsive (meaning that they act without thinking). The researchers also found that some of these traits may be linked to low levels of a certain chemical in the brain called serotonin
. That led the researchers to wonder if irritable people with normal serotonin may express their feelings outwardly—for instance by screaming or throwing—whereas irritable people with low serotonin may turn their irritability on themselves. They will have to do more research to know for sure. back to top
Why is self-injury more common among girls and women?
This is an interesting question. Almost 100 percent of the people who injure themselves are girls and women. Why so many? Some say it's because society has not allowed women and girls to express extreme anger or rage the way boys and men do. As a well-known writer said, "Men act out. Women act out by acting in." Another opinion is that, in our culture, as girls become women, they have to deal with a lot more conflicts around their changing bodies than boys do when they become men. This could mean that when girls have problems, they tend to take it out on their bodies more than boys do. back to top