What is self-harm?

orange_white_beads courtesy of lalagoesfishing on FlickrSelf-harm (also known as self-injury) is when you inflict physical harm on yourself, usually in secret and often without anyone else knowing.

Some examples are cutting, burning, biting or hitting your body, pulling out hair or scratching and picking at sores on your skin.

Self-harm is not necessarily a suicide attempt, and engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. Most commonly, self-harm is a behaviour that is used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

Why do people self-harm?

People who deliberately harm themselves have often had tough experiences or difficult relationships in their lives. You may have:

  • been bullied or discriminated against
  • lost someone close to you, such as a parent, brother, sister or friend
  • broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • been physically or sexually abused
  • experienced a serious illness or disability that affects the way you feel about yourself
  • experienced problems with family, school or peer groups.

Self-harm may be used as a way to cope with experiences and the strong feelings associated with it. Self-harm may:

provide a way to express difficult or hidden feelings: it’s not uncommon to feel numb or empty as a result of overwhelming feelings you may be experiencing, and engaging in self-harm may provide a temporary sense of feeling again or a way to express anger, sadness, grief or hurt

be a way of communicating to people that you need some support: when you feel unable to use words or any other way to do so can be a way of proving to yourself that you’re not invisible

provide you with a feeling of control: you might feel that self-harm is one way you can have a sense of control over your life, feelings, or body, especially if you feel as if other things in your life are out of control.

Self-harm can bring an immediate sense of relief, but it is only a temporary solution. It can also cause permanent scarring and damage to your body if you injure nerves. Psychologically, it may be associated with a sense of guilt, depression, low self-esteem or self-hatred along with a tendency to isolate yourself from others.

Finding help

Although it may seem hard, it’s important you reach out to someone who can help you work through some of the reasons for harming yourself, and find healthier, more positive alternatives for alleviating pain you feel inside. It may take time, but remember you can move to a happier and healthier outlook.

Speaking to someone about your self-harm may be hard so it’s particularly important to trust the person you are speaking with.

Starting the conversation

If you are having difficulty speaking about what you’re going through, try to start sentences such as ‘Right now, I’m feeling…’, ‘I think it started when…’, ‘I’ve been feeling this for…’, ‘My sleep has been…’, ‘Lately school/work/college has been…’.

It may be necessary to talk to someone like a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist to help you to work through some of the reasons why you are harming yourself and to find alternative strategies for alleviating the pain you feel inside.

Like any relationship, building trust with your counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist can take time so you need to find someone you feel comfortable with. This may mean seeing several people before finding one you ‘click’ with.

If there is a family member you feel comfortable telling, it may be helpful to have their support in finding a counsellor that’s right for you. The person you feel comfortable telling will already be worried about you and will be relieved at having the opportunity to listen and help.

Try to remember if you don’t get a positive response, this is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s more likely that the person you told may not know how to respond or may not understand much about self-harm.

Don’t give up!

Either try again or maybe speak to someone else who you think you might receive a more supportive response from.

If talking about it with someone is too overwhelming, an alternative is to email or write down what you want to say. Otherwise, a first step might be to talk to Samaritans by emailing jo@samaritans.org or calling 1850 60 90 90. Samaritans provide 24 hour confidential support to anyone struggling to cope.

If you or a friend are harming yourselves, take care of the injuries caused. If necessary, seek medical help through your GP or, if it’s serious, a hospital’s Accident and Emergency Department.

In most situations, doctors and other health professionals must keep information given to them by patients or clients confidential. However, they are required to report information they receive if they have serious concerns about your (or someone else’s) safety. See confidentiality.

How to cope without harming yourself

As well as getting some support, it may also be necessary to create a list of alternative strategies to self-harm for managing your emotions.

If you’re feeling like you want to harm yourself there are a number of things you can do to try to distract yourself until the feelings become more manageable. If you can, make sure that you are around other people and remove any sharp objects from the area.

Watch this video, Cotton, based on a girl’s story of learning to cope without harming herself

Ideas for releasing energy or feelings

It is difficult to get strong evidence of what works for people to stop self-harming. What works for one, may not work for another. Here are some things you can try to cope with overwhelming emotions. 

  • Choose to put off harming yourself until you’ve spoken to someone else or waited for 15 minutes (and see if you can extend it for another 15 minutes beyond that, continue to do it again and so on until the feeling passes).
  • Write in a journal – you might like to use an online journal.
  • Exercise – Go for a run or walk in the park to use up excess energy.
  • Play video games – this may be a good way to distract yourself and may help until the anxiety passes.
  • Yell or sing at the top of your lungs, on your own or to music. You might do this into a pillow if you don’t want other people in the house to hear.
  • Relaxation techniques – activities like yoga or meditation are often helpful in reducing anxiety.
  • Cry – crying is a healthy and normal way (not weak or stupid) to express your sadness or frustrations.
  • Talk to someone – talk with a trusted friend or with the Samaritans (call 1850 60 90 90 or email jo@samaritans.org)
  • Read “My green box” and ” A letter to self-harm” two personal stories about learning to cope with urges to self injure. 

Take care of yourself

It is important to eat well, exercise and be kind to yourself. While not a solution in itself, doing all these things contribute to a higher sense of self-worth. They can increase mood stability, and generally create a better sense of well-being making you feel happier, on the outside and the inside.


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Comments Show all comments

  1. Naoise says:

    Hello Bronagh,
    We're really sorry to hear what you've been going through. It sounds like you've been having to manage an awful lot on your own. Have you tried to talk to anyone about the bullying you've been experiencing? If this is something that is happening at school, there are people who can help and would want to know what is going on. If it's outside of school there are also people you can talk to help out.

    No one deserves to be bullied and it's certainly something you should not have to put up with. I know you say there have been problems at home but is there someone who you can talk to that you trust to work out what to do about the bullying. Take a look and different things you can try to help with bullying

    It is really important that you work out what steps you can take and manage all the feelings you have going on in ways that do no cause you injury or pain. Self-harm can be a way of dealing with overwhelming emotions and it's not a surprise that you have those with all you've had to deal with but it is really important you keep yourself safe and work out ways to manage these stresses in healthier ways. You do need some support in this way so talking to someone is the next step, just make sure it's someone you trust and are comfortable telling them every thing that's going on.

    You've taken the right step by coming here and looking up what you can, opening up to get some support from a teacher, school counsellor or family member will really help you right now. They might get a shock at first but it will be because they might not understand and be worried about you, so don;t take that to heart.

    Do take that next step Bronagh and take care of yourself, you will come through this

  2. bronagh says:

    hi im 16 and i been self harming myself for the past year over been bullied and things happening at home. I have started scratching and cutting myself. can someone help please.

  3. Roisin (Admin) says:

    Hi Jessie,

    I really am sorry to hear about what you are going through. It must be especially tough as you have been through this before and worked so hard to get through. Unfortunately it's not unusual for these types of feelings to return from time-to-time but at least you know you can get through this and things that have and can hep you.

    Going to your GP is a good first step. If you are worried about confidentiality you can ask your GP beforehand what types of things they have to share with your parents and what kinds of things they can keep confidential. Your GP can keep some things confidential but if they are worried about your safety they may have to tell someone so it can be good to clarify this with them before hand.

    I can understand your concerns about not wanting to share what you are going through but your friends and family would want to be there to support you. You have already gotten through his before but you don't need to do it alone. Talking to someone you trust can really help. I know you think that everyone has so much going on already but you deserve support during this tough time. We also have a website especially for parents that has lots of information that could help your mum understand what you are going through. It can take some time for parents to get used to the idea that someone they care about is going through a tough time but although they may seem hurt they really do want to help and support you. Maybe it could even be helpful for your parents to talk to someone about everything they are going through.

    If you really don't feel comfortable or ready to speak to someone close to you, then it could be helpful speak to someone outside of the situation like a counsellor. It sounds like speaking to a counsellor helped before and everyone needs a little extra support from time-to-time. Maybe you could go back to your original counsellor or maybe you could find someone new to talk through through school, college or your GP.

    The important thing is that you do talk to someone and get a bit of extra support. Even a helpline like child-line(You can talk to them on line too) if you are under 18 or the Samaritans can be good to talk to and are 100% anonymous and confidential.

    I hope this helps. I know it may not feel like it now but you can get through this and reaching out here is a relay good first step. Talking to someone can really help you deal with these overwhelming emotions without harming yourself.

    Keep reaching out,

  4. Jessie says:

    About two years ago I sort help for my depression and self harm and got counselling. I thought I got better but recently all the feelings of everything have come back and I don't know what to do. I was thinking about going to my gp and seeing if they would prescribe me with something but I'm worried that my parents would find out and it hurt my mum so much last time and really put a strain on our family. There's no one else I can talk to because of the same issue of them possibly telling my parents and I can't ask my friends to listen because they've already got so much going on in their lives and it would just unnessicarliy add. I just feel so awful all the time and don't know what to do. Sorry,

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