top of page

Understanding Self-Harming Behaviour

When we speak about self-harm, perhaps, cutting is the first thing that springs to mind. Selfharm covers a much broader area, from alcohol addiction or substance abuse to relationships with food or risky sexual behaviour. Further examples can be found here: It is important to share the spectrum of self-harm, so that from whichever perspective you are reading this article, hopefully, it will resonate and help. That said, to have reached this web page, self-harm has likely touched your life in some way.

When you begin to consider the act of self-injury, it often can be an upsetting, confusing and difficult subject to navigate. Sometimes being able to understand why and what-for can empower change and begin a journey of healing. It is not unusual to hear that the explanation for the need to self-harm is to release pain or conversely to ‘just feel something’ other than the feeling of being numb. Whenever negative feelings, including stressors or triggers, occur, this tends to culminate in a powerful compulsion to self-harm.

When this happens, what is happening in the body’s biology? When the body is in a highly stressful period the sympathetic division of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is activated. The ANS is a part of the system of nerves that extend from your brain and spinal cord. It is your bodies internal housekeeping for organs, including the skin. The sympathetic division is activated in times of challenge. Thousands of years ago it would be the same response we would get if we were to have come across a sabre–tooth tiger. The heart rate increases to pump blood to extremities to prepare to run; digestion slows, and we begin to perspire. The pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain behind the forehead) is known to be activated not only in a period of physical pain but also for psychological wounds. This area of the brain also is known to have many opioid receptors (Toates, 2015).

What do opioids have to do with self-harm? Opioids act as a pain blocker. When self-harming takes place, opioids communicate via the spinal cord (central nervous system) to the area of the body where, for example, tissue pain is occurring. Also, this biological process inadvertently acts to relieve psychological stressors, which are often the trigger to self-harming behaviour. Opioids are a biologically occurring method of pain relief, however, effectiveness is found in the moment. In essence, this selfharm behaviour cycle serves to self-medicate in times of stress, to feel more emotionally calm. Therefore, self-harm is unlikely to provide a long-term solution, merely a quick fix to get through a short-lived period of suffering. This intense psychological distress and reaction tend to create mood highs and subsequent lows. This pendulum effect contributes to the phenomena of classical conditioning; where the self-inflicted injury is located, is the unconditional stimulus that triggers an unconditional response (opioid release). A conditional stimulus can be developed by looking at an instrument used to inflict self-harm, and this can reinforce the self-harming behaviour.

It is important that any medical care or therapy plans are discussed with a healthcare professional, and that this information shared in this article is received only as a showcase of possible options that may be available to you if you are actively seeking help and support. Understanding self-harming behaviour

Ways to counteract the need to self-harm Antagonist medication (an inert chemical that attaches itself to the receptor of an opioidergic neurotransmitter, blocking the action of opioid release) can be prescribed by a medical professional. This can help with the feeling of wanting to self-harm but does not deal with the reason self-harm is used to self-medicate in those circumstances.

Taking up physical activity may help elevate low moods associated with the pendulum effect of self-harming. Although, this advice conflicts with the effects of the antagonist medication, however, promoting the endorphin (a type of opioid) production naturally, explains, that behaviour adjustment via exercise presents a more holistic way to regulate these biological processes. Moreover, research into endorphin production when taking part in strenuous exercise shows that endorphins are released into the bloodstream and the presence of this chemical is claimed to reduce pain, whether that pain is physical or of a psychological nature.

An integrated approach to therapy, for example, using acupuncture as a treatment for selfharm: Acupuncture for Self-Injurious Behavior | Psychology Today, alongside other more conventional therapies such as counselling. Acupuncture emulates the self-injury biological processes without sustaining an injury, whereas the more traditional therapeutic routes address the deeper origins of the self-harming behaviour.

Self-care when self-harming There is always a risk of other complications when self-injury occurs. If you have cut a little too deep or there are signs of infection in the self-injured area. If you have any concerns, please seek medical assistance, immediately. Having a connection with your doctor or health professional fosters not only positive associations of trust with others but also, ensures that you have a clear pathway to medical care if you require it.

Support from loved ones/Support for loved ones. Please find helpful links below, which provides further information about self-harm but also, shares ideas and suggestions, to aid understanding for those who self-harm and their loved ones.

Where to get help for self-harm - NHS ( Self Harm: What Is it About? | Marta Carvalhal | TEDxGreenville - Bing video Reference Toates, F. (2015) ‘Why do I feel this way? Brain, behaviour and mood’, in Capdevila, R. and Dixon, J, Briggs G. (eds) Investigating psy


bottom of page