A New Form of Self-Injury, Self-Embedding?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It’s a puzzle. Why do people want to cause themselves harm? Why would they choose to have pain? This is a question that many people ask, whether they have relatives who cut themselves or not. It seems counter intuitive that anyone would choose to hurt. Yet, this is just what countless numbers of people, especially young women, do. Furthermore, when they do it they cause very serious injury, slicing deep into their skin, burning themselves or finding other types of ways to self-injure.

If we really stop and think about it, self injury is not unusual or abnormal. Societies around the world recognize and condone certain types of this activities because they have a particular purpose. For example, men and women have their ears punctured in order that they wear and display jewelry. Other parts of the body are punctured for the same purpose. There are those who wear bully rings in their belly buttons. Others, have their nipples punctured for the same purpose. Untold numbers of people undergo considerable pain and discomfort in to have themselves tattooed. Many religions practice fasting for one and more days in a row. That certainly comes under the heading of a practice that is painful even though it is believed to be for a higher purpose. In point of fact, these are a few of many types of self inflicted pain that people are willing to undergo for purposes of celebrating life, death and initiation into adulthood.


However, the type of self harm that is being discussed here has no religious or culturally prescribed purpose. Rather, it’s deeply rooted in deep feelings of emotional stress and depression. This type of deliberate self harm has been going on for  hundreds of years. It is not an attempt at suicide. Rather, the goal is the achievement of pain and the subsequent feeling of inner peace and calm.

Statistics show that the rate of people harming themselves is greatly increasing. More alarming than that is the fact that some emergency room physicians are reporting a new form of self harm called “self embedding.” In this, the individual embedding sharp objects under their skin that have to be surgically removed.

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What are some of the motivating factors that cause a person to injure their bodies?

. Incredibly, this is a way for manage negative emotions. Perhaps those emotions have to do with guilt, self hate or despair about any number of problems.

. When an injury occurs the body releases endorphins that dull the pain and create a sense of relief. For example, just think of the times when you accidently suffered a cut to your finger. The initial pain is intense but soon seems to disappear. Endorphins are the body’s natural opioids designed to help us deal with all types of physical injuries from falling off our bicycle to slipping and falling on the ice during the winter, and more.

. There are those who feel a sense of dissociation from their bodies. Dissociation occurs when there is a severe trauma that is protected against by feeling nothing. Instead of pain or despair, a numbness sets in. This happens to those who suffered extreme child abuse or some other type of severe trauma. In order to feel something, the individual causes himself to feel pain in order to feel something rather than numbness.

. However, trauma and child abuse are not the reason most engage in self harm. The most common reason is an attempt to feel relief from stressful situations that cause emotional pain. In a way, physical pain is used to reduce emotional pain because there is a greater sense of control over physical pain. 

Self harm is not restricted to young people or to girls. There are a certain number of males who inflict this pain and there are older people as well.

It is possible for people to recover from this mental illness. Long term psychotherapy, especially Dialectical Behavior Therapy, medication and meditation are all tools in the battle to recover from this. Meditation and DBT are focused on living in the moment and on accepting one’s thoughts and feeling. Ultimately, what is achieved is the realization that even the most unpleasant situations and emotions will pass. It’s a matter of tolerating them in the meantime.

What are your comments about this issue?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD 

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