Nonsuicidal Self-Injury (NSSI)

Self-injury can be a devastating issue.

Recurring self-injury often begins in childhood or adolescence, but it can continue or resurface in adulthood as well when adversity strikes. If they discover it, many parents are shocked to discover that the behavior has occurred at all or for any length of time. Children and teens tend to hide their symptoms and deny anything is wrong if or when they are discovered. It can be confusing why a child would engage in deliberate self-harm. After all, one of our major duties as parents is to keep our children physically safe and emotionally protected.

Adults and parents grappling with self-injury are often sent into a predictable cycle of concern and worry and search for answers. They may try to minimize the significance of the behavior while increasing their denial of anything being wrong. To make matters worse, they cannot tell us what truly started the behavior or what kept it going. Many people are equally confused about how any connection exists between emotions and the self-injury. Isn’t physical pain just painful? Even those who self-injure may have difficulty explaining the self-harm other than admitting that they feel better when or after they are injuring themselves. Either way, they hold steadfastly onto the self-injury practice, reminding parents, medical professionals, or other concerned parties to please leave them alone. They may even attempt to develop new self-injury habits that are more easily concealed or more difficult to detect.

At its heart, non-suicidal self-injury is a coping strategy.

But this type of coping is truly symptomatic of an inability to regulate strong emotions. Lacking the skills to effectively deal with stress or strong emotions, they are triggered by things they should be able to handle or have even handled in the past, and then become lost in a storm of strong emotions. The worst part is that their inability to calm down can compromise their interactions with others, force them into isolation, interrupt their school or work life, and increase their sense of being lost and alone in a sea of powerful and confusing thoughts and emotions. There are many types of non-suicidal self-injury, and many people use multiple methods of self-harm. Some of the most common methods include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Scratching
  • Biting
  • Hitting / Banging
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects (repeatedly)
  • Inserting objects under the skin
  • Intentionally preventing wounds from healing
  • Carving words, symbols, or other things into the skin


Why Does Self-Injury Happen?

Stopping Powerful Emotions: Most people self-injure to stop the painful feelings. As many researchers and experts say, they aren’t trying to stop their life experiences but to modify them. According to research, the majority of those who self-injure are experiencing too much of a powerful emotion. They self-injure in a desperate attempt to distract or to regain “control” of the negative emotions. Those who self-injure may report frequent and intense episodes of the following:

  • Anger
  • Shame or guilt
  • Anxiety, tension or panic
  • Sadness
  • Frustration
  • Contempt


The Need To Feel Something: In some cases, self-injury can be used for the opposite issue where the person is feeling little to nothing at all. These people use self-injury to find their way out of too little emotion (i.e., “at least I can feel something”) or in an attempt to interrupt feelings of unreality or dissociation. These people may report the following experiences:

  • Hollow, empty feeling
  • Lost, confused, feelings of unreality.
  • Devoid of feelings and unable to get in touch with any emotions


What Can We Do?

The first action a concerned person or parent needs to take is to reach out for professional help. Since ineffective coping mechanisms are at the heart of self-injury, new healthy coping strategies and skills must be learned and used instead. It is difficult, if not impossible, to give up self-injury without learning new coping skills. At Gearing Up, we have spent thirty-five years helping adults as well as children, teens, and their families with Non-Suicidal Self-Injury. We always recommend starting with a thorough assessment by an experienced psychologist to make sure we know the psychological dynamics that are leading to self-harm patterns and to build an effective plan for how we will work towards solving these problems in the future.