What is self-harm

Understanding self-harm

Self-harm is when you deliberately inflict pain, injury or damage to yourself and is often seen as a coping mechanism to deal with intense emotional discomfort. If you have been thinking about hurting yourself or engaging in self-harming behaviour, you are not the only person to have felt this way, or used self-harm as a way of coping with difficult times in your life.

Self-harm is usually not a suicide attempt or intended to be fatal, but rather a means to cope with or feel some relief from powerful negative experiences and is often associated with strong and sustained emotions such as, guilt, depression and anxiety.

People who use self-harm have usually experienced tough times in their lives.

Some circumstances that have led people to hurt themselves are:

  • Finding it difficult to express strong feelings (sadness or anger)
  • Losing someone close to you (parent or sibling)
  • Being bullied or abused (emotional, physical, and/or sexual)
  • Intense emotional pain and loss
  • Mental illness (anxiety and depression).

The ways people hurt themselves are varied and may include: cutting, burning, self-medicating, scratching, biting or pinching oneself.

Your safety

If your self-harm has reached the point where you or someone else are concerned about your physical safety, for example, blood loss or the risk of infection, seek immediate medical attention at your local GP. In an emergency go to your local hospital’s emergency department or call 000 and request an ambulance.


Why do you self-harm?

Hurting yourself may feel like it releases and helps deal with emotional pain or gives expression to intense negative feelings that are impossible to put into words and provides a sense of control. In some people, it can be a form of self-punishment or a way to communicate to people that they need help.

However, self-harm only provides temporary relief, and gives you no opportunity to work through your feelings. After a while, you may find that you need to hurt yourself more and more to get the same relief. If this behaviour goes on, your self-harm could become self-perpetuating as the only means of dealing with obstacles in your life, and ultimately life-threatening.


Alternatives to self-harm

There are alternative ways to cope, and respond differently when you start to feel like hurting yourself.

You can try the following:

  • Delay the behaviour put it off until you have spoken to someone or waited for a period of time. You might find that the desire to self-harm then passes.
  • Distract yourself go for a walk, listen to music that expresses how you feel or changes your mood or engage in a hobby you enjoy.
  • Diversion try punching a pillow or punching bag, hold ice in the crook or your elbow, or other activity that can mimic the self-harm but is safer for you.
  • Relaxation try taking a bath or shower, deep breathing or techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation until the feeling passes.

These alternative strategies are not solutions to self-harming behaviour, but they can be used as short-term alternatives while you are seeking help through a counsellor or psychologist. These coping strategies can help you to get past the intense feelings that lead you to wanting to hurt yourself. While these feelings are intense, they do pass.


Professional help for self-harm

Self-harm can become a compulsive and dangerous activity and only ever masks the real reasons for its existence. It is not a solution to underlying issues that need to be talked about and resolved safely and in your own time. Even when people do not intend to end their lives, the consequences of this risky behaviour can be fatal.

It is important to get some help from your GP or other health professional to talk about what is happening and to discuss a management plan. The GP may then refer you to a psychologist who specialises in self-harm and can help you to help yourself.


How to talk about self-harm

If you are worried about how to talk to someone about the self-harm behaviour, you might start with the following:

  • “I’ve been feeling angry/sad/frustrated/guilty about something in my life.”
  • “It all started when…”
  • “Lately things have been hard and I am feeling…”

If you find talking about it too overwhelming, write down the feelings you have been experiencing and give them to someone who can help you. You might want to share this with a trusted friend or family member first and they can support you in getting the right help for you.


Don’t let it build up. SuicideLine Victoria is a free 24/7 telephone and online counselling service offering professional support to people who are concerned about their emotional and mental health. Call 1300 651 251. If it is an emergency, call 000.