the user-led self-injury organisation.

  • UK
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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 Physical addiction occurs when the body becomes tolerant of a substance, and reacts negatively when that substance is withdrawn.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.

You can’t control how people behave towards you, but you can manage your reaction.


  • Ann

    Um, what is the aim of this article?
    We already talk about many things as addiction, such as sex addiction – why should the word not be used when talking about SI?
    Also, the difficult thing about SI is that when a person tries to give it up, they often replace it with other, possibly also harmful behaviour. I think this risk should always be taken into account.
    “One of the first steps on the journey towards moving away from self-injury is acceptance of responsibility and choice.” – Um, definitely wasn’t for me. What was, however, was that SI wasn’t the end of the world, it didn’t mean I was a bad person or a failure. That I should take it easy, not blame myself nor let anyone blame me. And learning that I should take it one day at a time, putting time and space between SI and me, and gradually that distance would grow and make it easier.

  • Rosie

    “As self-injury is a behaviour, it can’t be physically addictive” – this is bullshit, it really can. I am even speaking from experience.

  • anna12

    “As self-injury is a behaviour, it can’t be physically addictive”… then how come gambling and sex are recognised within addiction? they are also behaviours. recent developments link self-harm to activating the endogenous opioid system. sincerely, someone who has struggled with self-harm for 10+ years.

  • Colin

    I am a 68 year old male. I’ve always been troubled by my gender identity. I have been addicted to alcohol for a long time. I hate myself, and have started hurting myself. I have lots of academic achievements, and love research etc, but still feel of little use.

  • sady

    • Wedge

      Sady, I read your comment and you need to Google “Read This First” and then you need to get help and support.

  • A person

    I know someone who self-harms, but they don’t do it because they’re depressed or need to let out any pain. They say they do it because it’s fun, and now they can’t stop. They don’t want to recover and they blame it on accidents but I know it’s not that. What do I do?

    • Wedge

      To “A person” – and do you just believe what they say? Could they be hiding their feelings from you? We hope you can be a good friend and talk to them about life and everything. One day, they may need further support.

  • […] to substances. Although it isn’t, technically speaking, the same as a substance addiction [check this out], it can as a behaviour bring about a similar sort of dependency. Especially relevant for sufferers […]

  • Nippy

    Some parents are nasty and bullies you must not blame yourself; instead look after yourself with love and care.

    I over-exercise – I have sprains and aches because I do twice as much as my physiotherapist tells me to do. I just thought I had to push myself.

    I think some people who have suffered trauma feel thumb and don’t notice over-doing things, and also some people with learning difficulties too.

    As men we are further traumatised to feel we must have muscle and in fact tall slim men don’t have the bulk and can get injured also trying to be that body type. I have had to learn to do some push ups on knuckles not wrists and back off from exercise my body just does not like.

    I’m learning my limits and working to be healthy in body and mind. I like to see my friends, it’s not all about exercise anymore.

  • Hatty

    I self-harm but this has been so helpful. I’m psychologically addicted to self-harming but I’m only a teenager. This website has made me attempt to stop.


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