Published: Dec. 1, 2011

There are many ways of dealing with anxiety or emotional pain, but one of the least understood is self-injury, says CU-Boulder sociology professor Patti Adler.

Her leading research offers new insights into a practice that has long been considered an addictive behavior practiced by mostly privileged, white teenage girls. Previous studies on individuals who deliberately injure themselves by cutting, burning, branding or bone-breaking were conducted by psychologists or physicians who studied subjects in hospital or therapeutic settings.

Yet, after conducting in-depth interviews with 150 self-injurers, as well as examining between 30,000 and 40,000 Internet posts in chat rooms during a 10-year period, Adler and Peter Adler, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Denver, found completely different results.

Self-injury occurs mostly among those in their teens and 20s, can occur in the 30s and grows more rare after age 40, according to the Adlers. Furthermore, rather than an addictive behavior or a suicidal gesture, self-injury is a coping mechanism that gives people a sense of control because they can “self-soothe.”

“Although society was initially shocked to discover that people might harm their bodies intentionally, when compared to other ways that people seek relief from pain [self-injury] offers several benefits — it’s not illegal, it’s not addictive, it doesn’t hurt others and the body eventually heals,” Patti Adler says.

Find support

  • Go to Internet self-injury chat rooms, which can provide a safe place to share experiences.
  • Follow the Adlers’ blog in Psychology Today.
  • Find a therapist who you can work with and trust.
  • Look into specialized clinics that offer inpatient treatment.