It’s called many things — self-injury, self-harm, cutting, and self-abuse.
Broadly speaking, self-injury is the act of attempting to alter a mood state by inflicting physical harm serious enough to cause tissue damage to one’s body. Approximately 1% of the United States’ population uses physical self-injury as a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings or situations.
The forms and severity of self-injury can vary, although the most commonly seen behavior is cutting, burning, and head-banging. Other forms of self-injurious behavior include: carving, scratching, branding, marking, burning/abrasions, biting, bruising, hitting, picking, and pulling skin and hair.
Studies suggest that when people who self-injure get emotionally overwhelmed, acts of self-harm bring their levels of psychological and physiological tension back to a bearable level almost immediately. In other words, they feel a strong uncomfortable emotion, they don’t know how to handle it, and they know that hurting themselves will reduce the emotional discomfort extremely quickly. They may still feel bad (or not), but they don’t have that panicky, jittery, trapped feeling.
Self-harm and suicidal thoughts may or may not be linked. If you or someone you know self-injures, seek further support and assessment. If you believe that there is imminent danger, contact 911. Otherwise, help is available through health insurance companies, employee assistance programs (EAPs), community mental health agencies, private practitioners, and local hotlines, which can all provide referrals to counselors, or through your medical provider, who can assess medical injury and can often make a referral to a mental health provider.