What is self-harm?

If you have been thinking about hurting yourself, you are not the only person to have felt this way or used self-harm to cope with difficult times in your life. Understand some of the reasons you may be self-harming and learn about alternative ways to manage your response when you start to feel like hurting yourself.

Why do I self-harm?

Self-harm is when you deliberately inflict pain, injury or damage to yourself. It is often seen as a coping mechanism to deal with intense emotional distress. Self-harm can include cutting, burning, hair pulling, scratching, biting, head banging or pinching oneself.

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. Some people describe self-harming as providing an external expression of internal feelings. It can be associated with strong and sustained emotions such as, guilt, shame, sadness, anger and fear.

Some circumstances that have led people to hurt themselves are:

  • Finding it difficult to express strong feelings (sadness, anger, shame or guilt)
  • Losing someone close to you (parent, sibling or friend)
  • Feeling loss and loneliness after the end of a relationship
  • Being bullied or abused (emotional, physical, and/or sexual)
  • Intense emotional pain and loss
  • Being exposed to a traumatic event
  • Feeling disconnected and numb
  • Not coping with life’s stresses
  • Peers are doing it, socially desirable

Hurting yourself may feel like a release and helps deal with your emotional pain. You may feel it gives you a way to express your intense negative feelings that are impossible to put into words and provides you with a sense of control. For some people, it can be a form of self-punishment or a way to deal with guilt or shame.

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 the only means of dealing with obstacles in your life, which can become life-threatening.


Your safety

If you are thinking about self-harming or have self-harmed in the past, you should tell someone you trust, which can be a family member, a friend or a health professional.

If your self-harm has reached the point where you or someone else is concerned about your physical safety, for example, the risk of infection, seek immediate medical attention at your local GP or hospital. In an emergency call 000.


Alternatives to self-harm

There are alternative ways to cope with negative emotions. When you start to feel like hurting yourself, try the following to stop self-harming in the moment:

  • Delay the behaviour. Try to 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, call a friend, or engage in a hobby you enjoy.
  • Divert your attention. Try holding ice in the crook of your elbow, wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it, take a cold shower, or try another activity that can mimic the self-harm but is safer for you.
  • Relax. Try taking deep breaths to relax or try a technique like progressive muscle relaxation. Engage in any activity that usually helps you to relax, which can be as simple as taking a shower.

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.


How to talk about self-harm

If you have thoughts of self-harm or are self-harming, it’s important to speak to someone you trust. This may feel intimidating and you may be worried about how to start the conversation. Below are some tips on how you might start:

  • “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. Sharing your experience can be the first step to recovery.


Professional help for self-harm

You do not have to face your situation alone. You can get professional help to stop self-harming and understand what is causing you to self-harm in the first place. A health professional can help you learn new strategies to cope. You will not be judged or thought any less of because you self-harm.

You can speak to your GP or a mental health professional who will help you with a management plan. Your GP can also refer you to a psychologist for ongoing support. Be honest about what is happening so that you can get the support you need. If you already have spoken with your GP or a mental health professional, keep connected.

Our counsellors at SuicideLine Victoria can help you start to work on what is triggering you to self-harm. We’re here 24/7 on 1300 651 251.

Kids Helpline can also help kids and teenagers on 1800 55 1800.


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.

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