Self-Harm and Alcohol Use

By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited: September 16, 2020 | 4 Sources

Both conditions are treatable, and should be treated at the same time.

When people purposely and intentionally harm themselves for some form of relief or satisfaction, it is referred to as self-harm. When someone is high or drunk, the ‘good' feeling they get from hurting themselves is increased and can be especially enjoyable.

It can also release a lot of stress. It is pretty clear this is not a healthy way to deal with stress or other negative emotions.

Self-harm occurs when somebody with emotional build-up begins to feel overwhelmed, and they’re looking for ways to numb the pain. When a person isn’t sure how to handle his or her emotions, or learned as a child to conceal their emotions, self-harm could actually feel like a release.

When someone wishes to kill themselves, they want to end their pain, whether it be physical or mental, or both. Death is the solution for their pain.

However, people who self-harm do not want to die, they just want to release their pain, and use it as an outlet for their suffering. This, of course, may appear backward.

The most common methods of self-harm are cutting and poisoning (over-dose behavior, drugs, and alcohol). Other forms are:

  • Scratching or pinching – scratching or pinching with fingernails or other some other object to the point that causes bleeding or marks on the skin. 
  • Hurting self on objects – banging or punching objects (for example walls, lockers, etc...) to the point of bruising or bleeding.
  • Using your own body to hurt yourself – banging or punching yourself to the point of bruising or bleeding. 
  • Ripped skin – ripping or tearing the skin off of yourself.
  • Carving – a person carves words or symbols into their skin.
  • Not letting yourself heal– a person purposefully delays the healing of wounds by reopening them, not treating them, etc. 
  • Burning – burning skin, often with cigarettes 
  • Rubbing objects into the skin – rubbing of sharp objects, such as glass or small sharp rocks, into the skin. 
  • Hair-pulling – medically known as trichotillomania, a person feels compelled to pull out their hair, and sometimes even eat it.

Self-Harm and Alcohol Use

“Drinking alcohol produces physiological stress, that is, some of the body's responses to alcohol are similar to its responses to other stressors. Yet, individuals also drink to relieve stress. Why people should engage in an activity that produces effects similar to those they are trying to relieve is a paradox that we do not yet understand. One hypothesis is that stress responses are not exclusively unpleasant; the arousal associated with stress itself may be rewarding.”

--- Enoch Gordis, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

self-harm and alcohol use

Self-harm is directly linked to substance abuse, including alcohol use. People who are dependent on alcohol and other substances usually have several risk factors for suicide. Simply using illicit drugs or alcohol is a form of self-harm, even if it is unintentional. The National Suicide Research Foundation stated that there is a strong connection between self-harming and excessive drinking.  Alcohol-related problems use are common among self-harm patients, and alcohol misuse increases the risk of both self-harm and suicide.

Self-harm itself is a direct side effect of the depressive symptoms that come with heavy drinking.

In 2013, 38% of about 12,000 self-harm reports were related to consuming alcohol. Some think it is possible to reduce self-harm by 17% by ending heavy drinking among teenagers.

Not too surprisingly, self-harm reports increase over the holidays, where people harm themselves and are admitted to the hospital after consuming alcohol. This leads to an increased need for help during the holidays. 

It's been mentioned before that alcohol is often used as a way to self-medicate for mental health conditions and symptoms. Alcohol is also used to have a ‘good time' and celebrate. When you start drinking, even if you started in an amazing mood, your central nervous system reacts to the depressive effects of alcohol.

This lowers your inhibitions, and if you are already prone to self-harm, this may lead you to go further with your self-harm than you have before. If someone is a cutter, they may cut themselves deeper or somewhere more dangerous than they usually do.

Someone might burn themselves more, or take additional drugs and accidentally overdose.

As previously discussed, self-harm is not done by someone to intentionally try to kill themselves since it is used as a coping mechanism. The problem is that when alcohol becomes involved, accidental death becomes more and more likely while practicing more extreme self-harm.

It is also a higher risk since alcohol is a depressant. Alcohol can bring former suicidal thoughts and negative emotions and feelings back to the surface, leading someone to do something they would likely not do sober.

Treatment For Self-Harm and Alcohol Use

Treatment for both self-harm and substance or alcohol use is available. During treatment, care providers will treat both conditions at the same time using approaches for both the self-harm and alcohol use. The greatest key to successful recovery is recognizing the symptoms in yourself, or reaching out if you see the symptoms in a loved one. People suffering from self-harm should always seek professional help, though in the meantime some things can be done to help care for yourself and reduce risk. These include: 

  • Finding support: forming a support system of family and friends, even if it is just one person, can be very helpful. Sometimes even finding one person to open up to and talk to can reduce the urges to hurt oneself or to consume alcohol. 
  • Awareness: It’s important to be aware of your surroundings and environment so you can better identify any triggers that lead you to self-harm or drinking alcohol. This sets you up to be more successful in recovery by being able to avoid any identified triggers.
  • Look for other factors: Most people who self-harm also suffer from another condition, including a mental health condition or substance use. This can lead to dangerous cycles of use and self-harm. If you recognize this in yourself, or a loved one, seek professional help immediately. 
  • Find distractions: Sometimes even being aware of your triggers isn’t enough, or avoiding them is nearly impossible. It’s important to find healthy outlets and distractions such as exercise or something creative like writing or painting.  
  • Be honest: Acknowledge when you may need help and self-help is not enough. There is no shame in seeking help and treatment from professionals, and recognizing this is already an amazing step towards recovery.

Many suicide hotlines offer assistance for self-harm, but an excellent resource is the Crisis Text Line. From anywhere in the USA, you can text CONNECT to 741741, and you will be connected to a crisis counselor specifically for self-harm. It is available 24/7.

Return From Self-Harm and Alcohol Use to Alcoholism and Co-occurring Disorders

Return From Self-Harm and Alcohol Use to Alcoholism Help Homepage

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

Sources: Does alcohol and other drug abuse increase the risk for suicide?. May 7, 2008.

PubMed. Alcohol dependence, excessive drinking and deliberate self-harm: trends and patterns in Oxford, 1989-2002. December 2005.

Dual Diagnosis. Self-Harm and Addiction: Are they Intertwined?. March 18, 2021.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. Self-harm.

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