Women sitting on step upset


What is self-harm? It is the act of deliberately inflicting pain, injury or damage to oneself. Self-harm is a difficult and sensitive topic that many people may find difficult to understand or talk about.

While there are usually many complex reasons behind why someone engages in self-harming behaviour, it is often a way of trying to cope with intense emotional distress. People who self-harm may have experienced (or are currently feeling) intense sadness, guilt, depression, anxiety, trauma, loss, anger or other strong feelings.

Self-harm is often confused with a suicide attempt. In fact, people who self-harm don’t usually intend to end their lives. Instead, it’s a way to feel some relief from strong negative feelings.


What causes self-harm?

The act of inflicting pain on oneself may feel like a release. This may help someone feel like they can better deal with emotional pain. Some people who self-harm believe it helps them ‘express’ intense negative feelings that they cannot put into words. Others believe it gives them a sense of empowerment or control. Others still feel that it can be a form of self-punishment or a simply a cry for help.

Common reasons for why people hurt themselves may include:

  • A way to express strong feelings like sadness or anger
  • Losing someone close, like a parent, brother or sister
  • Being bullied or abused, including emotional, physical, and / or sexual abuse
  • Intense emotional pain and loss
  • Mental illness like anxiety or depression.

Self-harm can include cutting, burning, self-medicating, scratching, biting or pinching oneself.


Alternatives to self-harm

There are alternatives to self-harm for people who are dealing with difficult emotions. These alternatives will not ‘fix’ the underlying reasons behind self-harming behaviour. However, they may provide some immediate relief from the negative feelings while further help is sought. If you feel the need to self-harm, consider a few of these strategies first.

1) Delay. Speak to someone about your feelings before the urge to self-harm rises. Alternatively, wait for some time to pass to allow the negative feelings to subside.

2) Distraction. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Exercise. Get into an activity that occupies the mind.

3) Do something else. Try punching a pillow or punching bag, holding ice inside your elbow, taking a cold shower or another activity that helps provide release but which is safer.

4) Relax. Self-harming behaviour tends to happen during feelings of intense distress. There are ways to relax that can help deal with it, like taking a bath or shower, mindfulness or meditation.


Why getting help for self-harm is important

It is important to get professional help to address self-harming behaviour in the long term.  If you or someone you know is self-harming, have a chat to your GP, a counsellor or psychologist about these feelings and finding better ways to cope.

Like many other coping behaviours, self-harm only gives temporary relief and does not allow the person to work through their feelings to find longer term solutions to their concerns. Self-harm is not a solution to underlying issues. It is far better to talk about these issues and resolve them safely.

One of the risks of self-harm is that it can become a habit. Someone who self-harms as a way of dealing with managing emotional pain may find that they need to hurt themselves more and more to get the same relief. If this behaviour goes on, they might start to see it as the only way of dealing with life’s problems.


Your safety

If self-harm has reached the point where you or someone else are concerned, seek immediate medical attention at your local GP. In an emergency, go to your local hospital’s emergency department or call 000 and ask for an ambulance.


If you are struggling and want to speak to a professional counsellor, SuicideLine Victoria is available 24/7. Call us on 1300 651 251.

If it is an emergency, call 000.