Why People Self Harm

This blog is part 3 of 4 in a series written for Swindon Mental Health Festival 2019 as part of a pamphlet to give out to people at the festival. It covers some of the reasons why people self injure.

This blog attempts to cover some of the reasons people may self harm. This is not as simple as X + Y = Z. There can be a large number of reasons why people self injure or self harm and I will probably only manage to cover the main ones. I have included some great images below that capture the whys and wherefores much better than I do. The main thing to remember is that self harm is a coping mechanism. Like the more socially acceptable smoking and drinking self injury is a crutch to deal with life stresses. Until something else replaces this as a coping mechanism the only way to deal with the urges to harm is to ‘white knuckle’ it, that is to hold off the urges through sheer effort of will. This is a problem in itself as you are now battling 2 problems – whatever the trigger was to create the self injury urge plus the urge itself. This can simply end up leading to an explosion. Using things like alcohol or drugs as an alternative is problematic in itself, partly because of the health and addiction problems associated with them but they also lower the threshold to self injure. This realization prompted me to give up alcohol a year ago as it became a recurring pattern that I would injure myself when drunk, and often more so than usual as I was uninhibited.

Self injury tends to be cyclical in nature. There is usually a trigger event, though urges may have been building up before this for quite some time. The trigger event causes the person to self injure. For a time relief is obtained. This is one of the reasons self injury is so hard to stop – it WORKS. Let’s face it, nobody would keep doing it if it didn’t. So the relief occurs from whatever has started the reaction, but the relief is only ever short lived. Once the initial feeling wears off the complications begin. The reasons it occurred are usually still there waiting once the reaction within the body has occurred and now, usually, is topped with a new layer – guilt and shame. I’ve yet to meet anybody who is proud that they self injure, that’s exactly why it’s a hidden epidemic. Now dealing with the continued issues that sparked the trigger event in the first place, but also with the guilt, shame, disgust, whatever negative emotions are associated with the self harm as well, a tension and stress will build up, the person will feel distressed, overwhelmed or numb until another trigger event occurs, causing the cycle to be repeated over and over again until they can find a way to break it. I think it’s important to note that this cycle also happens with other forms of self harm such as disordered eating, substance abuse or risk taking behaviour. The photo below shows some examples of the different types of self harm, both social and unsocial, hidden or overt. Many of these can follow the same cyclical pattern, especially when you get onto the realms of addiction to whatever form of harm is being used. Self injury is addictive but does not cause a physical dependency like alcohol, nicotine or drugs.

Self injury falls more into the realm of psychological dependency, I would hazard a guess along the same lines as disordered eating or gambling. Self injury is also not a mental disorder. This is an important distinction that can be confusing to people if they have to seek help for a loved one who self injures. As I’ve mentioned previously it’s a coping mechanism and a behaviour. That said, it is way more prevalent amongst people with mental illnesses, as much as 20x higher.

Other demographics with higher levels of self injury are people with autism or learning disabilities, the LGBTQ community, people in prison, asylum seekers or ethnic minorities exposed to racial stigma, veterans of the armed forces and abuse victims. Women are reported as having higher rates than men, but a lot of male self injury goes unreported so this may be a skewed perception. Self injury is rarely an attempt at suicide. Whilst self injury can be an indicator of an increased risk of suicide it is usually a way to deal with aspects of life. It is important to note that although the levels are higher in the populations I’ve mentioned above there is not a section of the population ‘immune’ to self injury. It can happen to anybody.

I’m not going to go through all the possible reasons people self injure but will attempt to cover the primary ones. There are too many different reasons if I were to try and break it down completely and I may probably miss some. The pictures I’ve provided give excellent examples and explanations and pretty much cover the bases. Self injury is also highly individual so what is a trigger for one person may not be a trigger for another.

-To deal with stress or feeling overwhelmed

The main way I try to explain this to people regarding my own triggers is that when everything is building up around me, events are out of my control or too much for me to juggle I develop a feeling inside my body like I can breathe in but not breathe out. The pressure will build up inside my entire body, but mainly in my chest until the levels can feel unbearable. When I self injure the pain sends a jolt to my body forcing me to inhale then exhale deeply and sharply relieving the pressure. The next breath I draw in can feel like it is clear and cold and refreshing. Like a release valve on a pressure cooker it allows it to escape. It doesn’t take long to build up again though however and this is worsened by having to either conceal it or break it to my partner.

-Dissociation, derealization and numbness

During times of stress, anxiety, trauma or depression a person find their body can react in a number of ways. They may feel disconnected from the world around them, detached. The world may feel unreal or like they are watching it from far away. Its also possible they may feel detached from their own body. This is dissociation or derealisation. They may also be feeling numb. Sometimes I personally feel devoid of any feeling whatsoever, robotic, going through the motions but unattached to them, zombie like. By injuring myself I feel *something*. It might not be healthy and it may (though not always) but it cuts through the fog to remind me I am alive and I have the ability to feel. The pain, the sight and the need to deal with it draws me back.

-Feeling like they deserve it

Self injury is also often very tied to self punishment. Chronic low self esteem and feelings of personal guilt or shame cannot be underestimated. A person may, rightly or wrongly, take on a lot as their fault and be apt to be less forgiving to themselves and harder on themselves than they would be on others in many cases. This can lead to them taking the consequences out on themselves and punishing themselves. This can be internally but sometimes it also occurs externally. They may feel like they deserve the pain.


Anger at self or others can be a motivator. As already explained anger towards themselves may cause a person to punish themselves but anger towards outwards situations or people may also cause this if they do not have the tools to express it effectively or safely. By turning it inwards it can be calming. It can also be done to avoid hurting another person with their anger as they would prefer to hurt themselves than anybody else.

-Struggling and being in pain

This probably sounds ridiculous. For a person to cause themselves pain because they are in pain? But physical pain is sometimes way easier to bear than mental pain or anguish/distress. Especially if they deal with chronic physical pain anyway, sometimes an acute pain is a relief to focus on instead. I personally can transfer the pain to the outside of my body for a while. Its also a visible sign of my pain, it validates it. I may keep it hidden from the view of everybody else but I know it’s there so it’s much more real and therefore less easy to dismiss. This one is the hardest to define and explain really. It is a transfer of something intangible or subjective to something real and visible to themselves or others. This is also a reason some people may have a need to see their scars and be reluctant to cover them and take away from their experiences.

Images uncredited on Google

I hope this has provided some insight as to why somebody you know self injures or that it has helped you to know others may feel the same way. The last blog will be up in the next couple of days covering the section on self injury alternatives. Thankyou for taking the time to read this series


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