Why Do People Self Harm?

By November 1, 2016Uncategorized
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Self-Harm can be hard to understand

Why self-harm? Most people know that we are all made with an in-built survival mechanism. In the light of this, self-harm can seem like a senseless behaviour.

I recently ran a training session about self-harm for a school in Sheffield. As I was preparing for this, I came across some research into self-harm and the brain. What I discovered shed some light on just why people turn to self-harm.


When I ask someone why they self-harm, they can provide me with a range of answers. The most common answer that I hear is, “Because it makes me feel better. I don’t know why, but it does.” Neuroscience research has found that the parts of the brain that deal with physical and emotional pain “criss-cross.” This means that when one part of the brain is activated, the other is deactivated for a short time. So, if someone is very upset and self-harm, the part of the brain which copes with physical pain is activated. This means that the part of the brain that registers emotional pain stops working for a while. The person feels less upset. So self-harm can and does bring a short relief to emotional distress.

Neuroscience hints at why self-harming can also be an addictive behaviour. Studies have found that when the part of the brain that deals with physical pain is activated, it releases Opioids into our bodies. Opioids are from the same group of chemicals as Opiates, These are, of course,  addictive. So people who self-harm often speak of both an emotional release and a kind of “high.”

Of course our brains are also highly adaptable. Studies of people who self-injure have shown that the brain “learns” that the physical pain it is experiencing is self-induced. It then increases a person’s pain thresholds. So, someone who self-harms needs to do so more and more to activate the physical pain part of the brain This is why self-harmers often escalate their injuries over time.

So, neuroscience provides some reasons why so many young people turn to self-harm. Hard that it can be to accept, it really can help.


However, self-harm is only a short term answer. So many responses to self-harm are focussed on stopping someone hurting themselves. However, whenever I see a someone who is self-harming, my focus is not on primarily on stopping them hurting themselves. Rather I look at and work on what is causing them to feel so upset in the first place. It’s my experience that when you deal with the causes of someone’s upset the amount of self-harming reduces.

So, neuroscience is teaching us that self-harming can bring about some kind of relief from emotional pain. However, at 8:16 I focus firstly on dealing with the root of the problems rather than focussing on stopping the outward symptoms.

Scientific American : How Pain Can Make You Feel Better
The Smithsonian : The Neuroscience of Self Harm

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