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.


Helpful sites

Comments Show all comments

  1. Fenella (Admin) says:

    Hi Natasha,

    It's not easy to stop self harming, as you say it can become a kind of habit. It's great to hear you are trying to stick to the promise you made your boyfriend, but I would encourage you to get some support as it will be difficult to do this on your own.

    Once someone starts to self harm, it's not unusual for the thoughts of self harm and the urge to self harm to come back. It can take a long time for those thoughts to fade, but they can fad with time and most importantly with the right support.

    Have you spoken about this with any other family or friends? It can help if we have lots of people we can turn to and talk to openly so that if you get the urge to self harm you have lots of people you can call to talk and distract you from self harming until the urge passes. It's great that your boyfriend is concerned for you and is helping you, but I would let him know that keeping the promise won't be easy and might take a while and ask him to be there for you.

    I wonder would you think about speaking with a counsellor? Sometimes the reason we might start to self harm is because of feelings we've kept hidden or bottled up or because of a bad experience we've been through. To get to the bottom of self harm and to try and stop it for good, it can really help to talk things through with someone like a counsellor. I think from your IP address that you are in the UK, is that right? If so, you can find details of counsellors on http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/ or you can find details of self harm supports near you through the NHS on http://www.nhs.uk/Service-Search/Self-Harm/LocationSearch/1887.

    There are lots of other distraction techniques you can try as well. The National Self Harm Network has a list of distractions. You could read through them and see if there are any that might work for you.

    There are some real stories from people who have learned how to cope without self harm and you can read their stories here “My green box” and "A letter to self-harm

    Keeping a diary can help you to keep track of any 'triggers' that might lead to you feeling the urge to self harm. Once you identify these triggers, which can be anything from certain situations, feelings of stress, being in a particular place, you can work out either how to avoid them or how to cope with them in ways other than self harming.

    Be kind to yourself Natasha, it's not easy to learn to cope without self harm but it is possible. With support from your boyfriend, your family, friends and a counsellor, you can learn to stop self harming and to prevent the urge to self harm. Being good to yourself by taking time out to relax, doing exercise and eating healthily can also help.

    I hope this helps - you can get through this.

    Take care,

  2. natasha says:

    I need advice,
    when I first got with my boyfriend he learned that I had been self harming and got me to promise to stop self harming which I had been doing for two years so was habit by this time. Anyway since then I have tried to stick to this promise but have had the urge to self harm on my mind I don't want to break the promise what should I do,
    Thank you

  3. 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

  4. 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.

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