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Dear Readers,

For those with no knowledge of this behavior or perhaps just individuals who think they have a low pain tolerance level, wanting to hurt  can seem like a strong, masochistic idea.  Self-harm usually doesn’t appear out of thin air.  Generally self-harm results from mental disorders or trauma.  Such mental disorders include eating disorders, mood disorders (especially depression or bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, conduct disorders, and substance abuse.  The mental disorder the self-injury is stemming from oftentimes coincides with the specific motivation for the injury.  On the other hand, self-harm can result from trauma.  Upsetting events such as family issues, negative social experiences, sexual abuse, or sometimes even national or global issues can send an individual spiraling into self-injurious behavior.

These people may engage in self-harm.  But why?  If they already feel bad, why would they want to feel worse?  Though physically inducing pain, there is obviously much more to it psychologically.  As stereotypical as it sounds, with self-harm it really is “the thought that counts.”  With suicidal self-harm the motivation is to kill oneself, whatever the trigger for that may be.  Non-suicidal self-harm can have a variety and multiple motivations.  I’ll go through some of the most common.

Distraction.  The individual can often feel overwhelmed with their own emotions, personal relationships, or even work/school.  So much is going on and he feels like he can’t juggle it all.  Just like someone may binge eat after a sad break-up, some individuals will self-harm to try and get their mind off of their pain.

To feel.  However, sometimes the problem isn’t having too many feelings, but possibly none at all!  This can be considered apathy: not caring about perhaps other people or future events.  Or rather than just lack of concern, some people may not have the emotional reaction they think is appropriate for certain situations.  This may include not feeling down by depressing news or not being affected by the emotions of a loved one.  Also, the lack of motivation may be a component.  One side effect of depression is the loss of motivation or enjoyment with previously enjoyable tasks.  Any of these instances can sometimes frighten the individual.  Not caring about the future or not wanting to do anything can feel like lacking the will to live.  Realizing this may alarm the individual.  They may wish to feel again and think that inciting physical pain may “snap” them back into reality.

Sense of control.  The world can be a scary place.  One of the most frightening aspects is that some things are out of our control.  Events or even our own emotional reactions to things can be out of our control.  What can be controlled, however, is injury.  The individual has the power to decide how, when, where, and to what extent he can hurt himself.  Sure, choosing not to self-injure would be control too.  But although resisting action can be very admirable, it is not as visible.  It might not feel like you have the same level of power.  This can often be motivation for victims of sexual abuse since their abusers had power over them.

Expression.  Some of us are great at expressing how we feel.  Whether that be yelling out of the car window at an inconsiderate driver, sitting down and having that much needed discussion with a loved one, or writing those feelings out in poetry, song, or story, we might be pretty good at letting people know what’s bugging us.  For self-injurers of this nature, talk-therapy or discussions with an open friend can be a good coping alternative.  However, not everyone has this skill.  Some don’t have the words to say how they feel, don’t know what they’re feeling, or don’t even have an audience that they think would care.  As you’ve probably heard it’s never good to bottle things up.  For those who might not be able to vent in the aforesaid ways, they may release their tension and frustration through self-injury.

To feel better.  As strange as this motivation sounds, it makes biochemical sense.  As you might be aware, endorphins are neurotransmitters important in making us feel happy or relaxed.  Studies have shown that individuals who self-harm or have depression have significantly fewer natural endorphins.  Endorphins are released by exercise or even just excitement.  In this case, self-injury can give the individual a “thrill” or sense of dangerous excitement.  It can elevate endorphin levels and give a “rush.”  This is quite similar to doing drugs that create moods of elation.  And likewise, it can be just as difficult to quit.

Of course these are only a few of the possible motivations for self-injury.  And oftentimes they are combined.  The self-injurer often has these motivations subconsciously and may not even know these are the reasons he hurts himself.  However, knowing the motivations can be important for finding out how to quit.

Thank you for reading this week’s blog on self-harm.  It came out a little later than I intended and I hope to get next week’s done sooner.  I’ll probably be discussing self-harm and the media in my next installment.


The Empathetic Activist