People often say they’re addicted to self-injury. Considering how hard it is to resist hurting yourself when triggered, it’s not surprising to hear this word. But is ‘addiction’ the right term?


As self-injury is a behaviour, it can’t be physically addictive. Physical addiction occurs when the body becomes tolerant of a substance, and reacts negatively when that substance is withdrawn. Physical addiction occurs with substances such as nicotine and heroin. Behaviours are not physically addictive.

“Self-injury is a coping mechanism. An individual harms their physical self to deal with emotional pain, or to break feelings of numbness by arousing sensation.”

Some people will remind you that the endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and even cortisone, that the body releases when experiencing pain, injury, exercise, and happiness, can be addictive. But these biochemicals are natural – part of the bodies normal response to everyday occurrences.

Non-addictive drugs, such as cannabis, may create a psychological reliance over time. This isn’t a physical addiction, but a craving. This could be called a psychological addiction, and self-injury could also be thought of in this way.

Physical v psychological addiction

Physical addiction is uncontrollable. A person who is denied a substance to which they are physically addicted will have no control over their body’s reactions.

Psychological addiction on the other hand is controllable, and can be managed. It may feel awful, and those feelings are valid, but it’s a different to physical dependency.


A damaging term

Use of the word ‘addiction’ can be damaging for someone who self-injures. The term serves to remove control, responsibility, and choice. It clouds the difference between need and desire. It can be used as an excuse; a word that dismisses responsibility. This might disrespect the effort of someone who is learning new ways of coping and moving away from self-injury.

Self-injury is difficult to move away from, and telling someone that they’re addicted can validate their desperate desire to hurt themselves to feel better. ‘Addiction’, in relation to self-injury (as defined) has complicated inferences that are unhelpful to an individual wanting to make new choices and pursue recovery.



Although not physically addictive, self-injury is certainly something that people can become reliant on over time.

They may self-injure more frequently, more severely, and might even get triggered more often though a relatively normal day. It may become an action that a person relies upon simply to get through the day. Self-injury can become a habit that is extremely difficult to break.

Despite psychological reliance being very different to a physical addiction, some of the psychological difficulties are the same. The difference is that with reliance, a person has control over their choices, actions, and reactions, (even when they feel they don’t), which gives greater hope for recovery.



One of the first steps on the journey towards moving away from self-injury is acceptance of responsibility and choice. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, and each act of self-injury is a choice*. By accepting these statements, a person can empower themselves to regain control of their behaviours and begin to make healthier choices.

With the right support, anyone who is reliant on self-injury but doesn’t want to be, can learn new coping methods and break free from the chains of reliance. LifeSIGNS is here to guide and support you along the way.

*self-injury can occur during psychosis without the person being in full control of their actions. But this is a serious psychological condition that is bigger than the self-injury itself, and professional help must be sought.


Certainly, self-injury can be considered a compulsion. A person may feel compelled to hurt themselves when distressed, and the urge to self-harm may be overwhelming.


Trigger – an experience (an event or memory) that heightens distress beyond endurance, compelling a person to hurt themselves.

A trigger is an event that pushes a person over the edge and leads them to seek immediate relief through self-harm. A trigger can be an external event, such as an argument, or an internal event, like remembering a traumatic time.


Urge – People can feel the urge to self-injure for hours, and it can feel like there is nothing else to relieve the distress, other than to hurt one’s self. The ‘urge’ can fade over time, and can be managed to help reduce the risk of a trigger.

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