March 1st marks Self-Injury Awareness Day. Today is a day to learn about self-injury, examine interventions for treatment and prevention, as well as spread the word to those who may be naïve or misinformed.self injury ribbon

What is self-injury? Defining terms:

  • Self-injury refers to deliberate bodily harm that may or may not be motivated by suicidal intentions and can be similarly related to the concept of self-mutilation.
  • Self-harm describes a multitude of potentially damaging behaviors including abusing substances, engaging in risky behavior and/or inflicting damage to one’s own body.
  • Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is deliberate destruction of body tissue occurring without conscious suicidal intent, not leading to intentionally life-threatening wounds[i]

Self-injury is complex and generally more prevalent than most may think–5.9% of the United States population has engaged in some form of non-suicidal self-injurious behavior at some point within their lifetime[ii]. Recent trends show a rise in non-suicidal self-injury particularly with adolescents as a way to fit in socially with peers[iii].

Self-injurious behaviors are often understood as coping mechanisms–adaptive behaviors to assist people in managing past experiences, external stressors and internal happenings. Common reasons for self-injurious behaviors include stress, frustration, anger and acute feelings of internal suffering[iv]. That being said–each individual has unique reasons, experiences and results of self-injurious behavior. When treating those who self-injure, it is important to understand each client’s idiosyncratic process.

What can dance/movement therapy do for those who self-injure?

Many who engage in self-injury struggle to express themselves verbally. The self-injurious behavior, such as cutting, scratching or burning, replaces other socially acceptable ways of emoting internal suffering. As a treatment option, dance/movement therapy utilizes the body to safely experience, nonverbally express and integrate — meeting the client where they are at.

Some preliminary evidence suggests that physical movement on its own may help address the urges to engage in self-injury[v]. Dance/movement therapy is based in physical movement and offers the added benefits of processing deeper issues as well as trained therapeutic intervention thereby providing both short and long term treatment for those who self-injure.


Self-injurers are the victims of their own behavior; this fact creates a disjointed relationship to one’s own self and body. It is vital that self-injurers become more connected with their bodies, finding a capacity for wholeness and eventually finding respect for their own inner worlds and outer flesh. Through the dance/movement therapy process, individuals will find a new relationship with their body, a new dance, and a new way of coping.

Other themes of self-injury can be addressed through dance including control and releasing control; revitalizing physical sensations; expressing trauma non-verbally; moving punishment towards an external object; rediscovering the connection to the bodily self; and exerting overwhelming emotions.

In dance/movement therapy there is the understanding that ‘the body keeps score’. Quite similarly through self-injurious behaviors this “score” is tallied on the flesh thereby making it visible and potentially public, often a silent cry for help.

To learn more about self-injury and how you can contribute to Self-Injury Awareness Day, visit



i. Di Pierro, R., Sarno, I., Perego, S., Gallucci, M., & Madeddu, F. (2012). Adolescent nonsuicidal self-injury: The effects of personality traits, family relationships and maltreatment on the presence and severity of behaviors. Encyclopedia of child and adolescent psychiatry, 21, 511-520.

ii. Muehlenkamp, J. L., Claes, L., Havertape, L., & Plener, P. L. (2012). International prevalence of adolescent non-suicidal self-injury and deliberate self-harm. Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health, 6, 10.

iii. Wilkinson, P., & Goodyer, I. (2011). Non-suicidal self-injury. European journal of child and adolescent psychiatry, 20, 103-108.

iv. Adler, P. A., (2011). The tender cut: The rise and transformation of self-injury. New York, NY: New York University Press.

v. Washburn, J. J., Richardt, S. L., Styer, D. M., Gebhardt, M., Juzwin, K. R., Yourek, A., & Aldridge, D. (2012). Psychotherapeutic approaches to non-suicidal self-injury in adolescents. Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health 2012, 6:14



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