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. Naoise says:

    Hi Sarah
    Really sorry to hear all you've been going through. It's very difficult when we decide to open up to someone who we think help and then they don't. However, as a school authority your principal has an obligation to do something about the bullying you're experiencing. Have you spoken to your parents about it? Is there anyone else that can help you talk to the principal about this?

    Sarah it's really important that whatever is going on for you, that you try to manage these feelings in a way that doesn't cause injury to yourself. You have an awful lot going on and it is no wonder that you are feeling under pressure and and overwhelmed. You could really do with some support from someone else, and it's really unfortunate that the person you have reached out so far hasn't help you in the way you need. A family member or another teacher you trust or your family doctor should be able to help you work through your feelings and work out some ways to deal with your distress in ways that don't involve harming yourself.

    It may sound simplistic considering all you're going through but making sure you are eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and making sure you are getting enough quality sleep are all things you can do to help you feel a bit better and build your resilience. When we experiencing feelings of distress we can forget these basic ways of looking after ourselves and they can make a big difference to our perspective.

    You've shown really courage looking for help and you deserve to feel better, so it is important you get the support you need, and your GP, or a trusted family member or friend should be able to offer you some help. People who love you may get a shock to hear how bad you've been feeling, but please to do keep trying and remember you can and will get through this and have every right to.

    Take care of yourself Sarah, you've been incredibly resilient so far so do keep trying to help yourself and get support you need

  2. Sarah says:

    hi im 15 ive self harmed for nearly three years.I have told my pricipal but she didnt really help she just put more pressure on me. im being bullied and ive started pulling my hair out can anyone please Help :-(

  3. annette says:


  4. roisin says:

    Hi Eva,

    I'm sorry to hear that your friend is self-harming. When someone we care about is self-harming it can be confusing and hard to understand. You sound like a very good friend to be here asking for advise about how to help them. Hopefully I can provide you with some information that you both will find helpful.

    This article has lots of information about how to help a friend who is self-harming. I would recommend that you have a look at it and then you can get back to me here if you have any questions.

    Best of luck,

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