Self-harm is when an individual intentionally injures themselves as a way of coping with or expressing distressing emotions such as sadness, anger and stress. There are many types of self-harm and due to this some individuals who are self-harming may go unnoticed. Self-harm is typically physical, such as cutting yourself. However, they it can be far less obvious; not looking after your own physical and emotional needs, or purposely putting yourself in risky or dangerous situations are also types of self-harm. In some cases, an individual who uses self-harm as a coping method feels that they intend to die when they act out this behaviour to some degree. However, the usual intention is to punish themselves, cope and express the distress they are feeling, as well as to relieve the way they are feeling. It is often a mixture of these reasons that a person will choose to self-harm.

Ways in which self-harm may present itself includes:

  • Cutting yourself
  • Burning your skin
  • Hitting or punching yourself or your surroundings
  • Scratching and hair pulling
  • Overdosing
  • Poisoning yourself
  • Inserting objects into your body
  • Over eating or under eating
  • Exercising excessively

When an individual self-harms, they will usually feel at least somewhat better immediately after the behaviour has occurred. In the long term, self-harm can cause negative feelings to arise, such as regret, disgust, embarrassment and shame. Those who self-harm often go out of their way to hide their behaviour due to the shame associated with self-harm or the fear of discovery. The common worry is that you will be judged for your self-harm or be pressured to stop by those around you, this isn’t always a shared belief but it is certainly very common; as a result most people will hide their self-harm to their best ability.

Although those who self-harm may hide their behaviour, there are signs to look out for which can allow you to spot self-harming behaviour in an individual. These include:

  • Keeping their bodies fully covered, even during hot weather
  • Unexplained cuts, bruises, or burns (often located on the wrists, arms, thighs or torso)
  • Signs of depression
  • Suicidal thoughts/ideation
  • Becoming withdrawn and isolating themselves
  • Self-loathing and expressing a wish to punish themselves
  • Change in eating or sleeping habits
  • Signs of hair loss (through pulling)
  • Signs of alcohol or drug misuse

It’s important to remember that those who self-harm could seriously injure themselves or possibly end their lives, therefore if any of the previous behaviour is noticed in an individual, it is important to approach the subject with care and understanding, in order to ensure they get the help they need.

Why do People Self-Harm?

People may self-harm for a multitude of different reasons, and self-harm is far more common than people realise. It is estimated that 10% of younger people self-harm at some point, which is likely to be an underestimate due to the fact that many individuals who self-harm go undetected, though a person of any age may self-harm.

Self-harm is often a way of dealing with emotional distress caused by a variety of things, the most common being:

  • Bullying
  • Sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • An illness or health problem
  • Money issues
  • Pressures from school or work
  • Bereavement
  • Confusion about sexuality or gender identity
  • Break down of relationships or friendships
  • Difficult and distressing feelings such as depression, anger, apathy, anxiety, or stress

Not all people who self-harm will know exactly why they are self-harming, and that is perfectly normal. You do not need to know why you self-harm to ask for help and support.

Help and Support Available for People who Self Harm

When a person self-harms, it can often go unnoticed for a long time, which makes it more difficult to treat the individual as self-harm can quite easily become an addiction. If you or anyone you know is beginning to self-harm, it is best to get help immediately.

Reducing and ceasing self-harming behaviour can be a difficult and long process, but it is important to remember that it is just that, a process. The road to recovery is not going to be easy, and you may find that you relapse to your old behaviours, which is perfectly okay, as it is a part of the process. If you feel that you cannot stop self-harming entirely, work out ways that will help you to reduce the amount you self-harm, which will make it far easier to stop doing in the future.

In order to reduce and cease self-harming behaviour, it is a good idea to work out your self-harming patterns which can also help you work out your triggers. This way you can avoid situations and circumstances which will make you feel the need to self-harm. After this, you need to identify how you experience the urge to self-harm. Urges can come in many different forms, these include:

  • Physical sensations
  • Strong emotions, such as fear, anger or despair
  • Specific thoughts such as “I’m going to cut”, “Hurt” or “Pain”
  • Making decisions which are not good for your wellbeing
  • Disconnecting with yourself

If you are able to recognise these urges, you can take steps forward by reducing and stopping your self-harm.

When you begin to feel an urge to self-harm, you should quickly distract yourself by doing something else. I personally find it is best to use something creative, such as writing, drawing, painting or any other form of art. If you want to use art as a way to reduce or stop your self-harm, I previously wrote an article on coping with mental illness through Art Therapy. Music can also be extremely helpful in these situations. You can also use alternatives to self-harm such as hitting a pillow or drawing on your skin.

Although you can use these methods to help yourself, it is very important to consider professional help. Professional help will ensure you get the right treatment for you, as well as work through any other issues you’re having which may be causing you to self-harm. Usually Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is recommended for people who self-harm. During a CBT session you would talk about your thoughts and feelings and how they affect your behaviour and your wellbeing. Evidence does suggest that these treatments can be effective in the long-term for those who have self-harmed.

It is okay to talk about self-harm. Reach out, help is available, and you can find support from many different places. Recovery is a journey that you can take.


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