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Explaining to loved ones why we can’t ‘just stop’ can be confusing

Written by Jamie, LifeSIGNS member.

This is written in the hopes that it will shed some light on the reasons it is so difficult to stop self harming.

Please be aware that most of the contents of this document are opinions. It would be almost impossible to find a factual reason why people begin to self harm, and it would be equally difficult to find a factual reason why quitting is difficult.


Physical / Chemical

To start with, there is the matter of brain chemistry. When a person self-injures the brain releases endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and have a somewhat calming, soothing effect. So, a person is upset for some reason; he or she cuts, burns, bruises, or otherwise causes harm to themselves; the body releases endorphins and the person feels better, almost as if an anti-anxiety drug had been taken.

Unfortunately, like with most drugs, as time goes on the body requires more and more of it to get the same effect. In order to get the relief that the person once received from very minor and infrequent self-injury he or she may start to self-injure more and more frequently or (as in my case) more and more severely. Please note that this is a very brief and simple description of what happens to brain chemistry when someone self-injures. More in depth information is available in books about self-injury and on various websites. How a person discovers that self-injury can be used to sooth and calm oneself when upset is a matter of discussion, though I would guess it could happen in many different ways.



A more psychological aspect of self-injury is the need to be cared for. A person feels unloved or unwanted; he or she self-injures in order to care for the wounds. Although the person hurting is the one caring for the hurt, they still feel cared about on some level. For some people this may feel like the only way they ever get cared about, be that actually true or not.


There can also be a feeling of empowerment stemming from the harming of oneself. One is the perpetrator of the crime, the crime victim, and the person who cleans up after it and fixes it. For someone who feels powerless, that may give them a sense of control. If one feels one has no other control over his or her life that can be very powerful and difficult to give up. Who does NOT want some control over his or her life?


Some people may feel it is the only form of release they have… like self-injury is the only thing that is always there for them. If friends and family are not available, or are just plain sick of hearing about someone’s issues, he or she may believe that self-injury is the only method available to express difficult feelings. In this case there is not much incentive to stop. Everyone needs some way of expressing emotions, and if one really feels that this is the only way, he or she will continue to do so until another, hopefully more appropriate way, is found.


Strange as it sounds, I have heard of people who self-injure because they are happy. The people I have spoken to about this all say that they have been chronically depressed for most of their lives, and then got treatment (usually anti-depressant medication) which made them feel better. However, they have only known pain, so it seems ‘normal’ to them. They have a tough time stopping because self-injury causes the pain and distress to which they have become so accustomed. (Most of these people were self-injurers before they received treatment for depression, and just carried on the behaviour after getting help. I have yet to find anyone who began self-injuring after receiving treatment, though it would not surprise me to find that such individuals do exist).


There are those who find it difficult to stop self-injuring because they feel they deserve punishment. If no one else will punish them for what they perceive as their misdeeds (these my be real or imagined) they use self- injury to punish themselves.
Most people do feel a need to atone in some way for the wrongs they do. If they can find no other way to fill this desire, they may use self-injury. There are also those who just feel that they are “bad” people. Not that they have done wrong, but that they are wrong. Again, they may have a hard time stopping self-injury because they feel that they somehow deserve punishment for being such terrible human beings. Most of these people are actually quite caring individuals, but for they cannot see the good in themselves and therefore they punish themselves.

Trauma and Mental Health

There are other reasons, mostly dealing with psychosis, flashbacks from traumatic events, and / or issues with dissociation. I am not going into those in this essay because in those cases self-injury is secondary to other psychological issues. In order to explain the relationship between self-injury and the other issues, I would have to explain the other issues in some depth. I am not a medical professional and am not qualified to do this.

There are certainly other reasons why self-injury is difficult to stop. Part of the problem is that it can just become a habit, like any other maladaptive behaviour. If you have ever tried to break a bad habit you know how difficult it can be.

This essay was written in hopes of helping people who do not self-injure to better understand why those of us who do can’t always just quit. Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

June 30, 2004

This article may not reflect the opinions of the LifeSIGNS Organisation or its members.


  • Vivienne Leighner

    This was very helpful to explain to my mum why I can’t just stop. Thank you.

  • Tabi

    Thanks, im trying to explain to my friend why self harm is so hard to stop and this really helped

  • Jayshree Bakrania

    Thank you Jamie. This is really very helpful indeed.


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