Self-harm isn’t one amorphous mass, but a collection of individual behaviors, with personalized emotional causes and biological precursors.
Below, we discuss where different types of self-harm may come from. If the urge feels really strong, we offer up some truly helpful suggestions for alternatives to self-harming.
All of the above are less noticeable expressions of self-harm. They fall under the category of “excoriation disorders.” Specific names include Trichotillomania (hair pulling), or Dermatillomania (skin picking).
These behaviors occur in varying degrees, from simple nail-biting, to self-induced welts — and they may be related to chemical imbalances in your brain.
For instance, skin picking and hair pulling may correlate with an excess in the chemical glutamate, which can add extra anxious energy to your system. Excess glutamate can be countered by increasing calming neurotransmitters like GABA, exercising, or even discussing supplementation with your doctor.
These forms of self-harm can come from a reasonable place, but extend past their reasonable use. You have a hangnail, so you go ahead and pick at it. But then you end up picking away your entire cuticle.
In an evolutionary context, grooming helped humans bond, increase social closeness, boost feel-good neurotransmitters, and decrease risk of infection. So if you feel especially socially stressed (social anxiety, emotional or physical abuse, high expectations at work), you may feel an especially strong grooming urge. Again, this may be related to grooming being an evolutionary way to seek social support.
But since you’re not an early human and picking at other people isn’t acceptable, you might end up picking more at yourself.
Biting or punching yourself can feel helpful because both literally release tension. Sometimes, self-harm might feel like the only option in an environment where you don’t feel free to move, act, or otherwise express yourself.
Punching or biting may feel helpful more because of the exercise to your jaw or arm, than because of the pain you’re inflicting. When you have underlying feelings of anxiety, anger, or general frustration, your body becomes motivated to physically work those out – to do something about it.
So instead of letting yourself be the outlet for tension and stress, turn it outward in a safe way: punch a pillow, run to tire yourself out, or even save up for a discreet, floor-mounted punching bag (to punch or kick…).
And don’t forget about all the easy or free ways to release jaw tension. Try crunching ice cubes, placing a pencil between your teeth, chewing sugar-free gum, or developing a taste for celery.
It may also feel more tempting to bite or punch yourself if you’ve been bitten or punched by an abuser in your life. We hope you’re not suffering through this, but if you are, please seek out professional support.
You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233, or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.
You have a right to safety, both emotional and physical – you’ve never done anything to deserve abuse, because big or small, it’s never warranted. Complicated feelings toward your abuser may make it difficult to accept your human rights, though.
There’s no easy way to break your bond with an abuser, especially a manipulative one. And there’s no shame in how long you have stayed so far. Just work toward helping yourself – it may help to assemble a team of professionals and loved ones before you take the plunge to leave.
Those who cut may not think about why it feels good – the same as other types of self harm. People often cut for three reasons:
If your emotions have been feeling blunted, cutting may tempt you as a way to feel a normal rise and fall in emotions – a way to feel just something.
Another main reason people cut is to break a build-up of stress, pain, or fear. While it often feels unsafe to let out your emotional pain, physical pain is both totally accepted by society AND harder to stuff down. So, for some people, cutting serves as a way to release intense pent-up emotions. The cut breaks down the initial barrier, giving way to much-needed sobs, tremors, and or tears. This releases built-up tension and unhelpful neurotransmitters.
The third reason: everybody loves endorphins. When your skin breaks, your body releases endorphins as natural pain-relief. Endorphins are probably a main chemical drive behind cutting and other self-harm habits. But luckily, this opens up an opportunity for healing.
Replace the endorphin rush of self-harm with any number of other activities that create endorphin cascades.
You’d be surprised how little effort it takes to feel relief, here. In your room, grab a heavy box of stuff, a couple textbooks, or even something like your desk chair. Just holding it for a while, or lifting it up and down as a makeshift weight, can produce an endorphin rush.
If that’s too easy, hold out the heavy object straight in front of you until your muscles start vibrating a bit. Releasing the object should then feel pretty good.
An even quicker version of this: tense all the muscles in your body, as hard as you can, anywhere from 10 – thirty seconds, then release them at once. Steph Curry, NBA player on the Warriors, does this before high-pressure shots, to release endorphins and overcome anxiety.
Obviously it’s hard for a lot of us to feel enough joy to laugh. But sometimes you can trigger a laugh even in a low mood, and that may produce better relief than a physical cut. Think of a specific scene from a movie or type of humor you especially respond to, and click that link!!
Capsaicin releases endorphins by tricking your body into thinking you’re experiencing physical pain. It activates the same sense receptors you feel heat and other pain through, so it tricks your body into sending a response to that ‘pain.’ This is partially why doctors prescribe capsaicin creams to help muscle pain – it tricks the body into releasing feel-good chemicals.
Just like when you feel an endorphin rush after cutting, eating something really spicy will trigger an endorphin rush, and it’s safe enough to do all the time.
There are lots of ways to release internal pain without creating irreversible physical pain.
We understand your scars may tell your story, but also want to say — there are places, like Supportiv, where you can actually tell your story to someone who understands. With no fear of judgement.
We hope you’ll try it out.