What is self-harm? (A 3 point guide)

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Self-harm is a method of managing profound pain. Young people typically engage in self-harm when they are in emotional pain and do not know how else to release it. The effect of self-harm is believed to have an endorphin-like effect. 

Self-harm can look very differently. Some ways individuals harm themselves includes: 

  • Cutting
  • Scratching the skin to the point of bleeding
  • Self-inflicted burns
  • Hitting oneself or banging your head against another object  
  • Punching things or tossing your body against large items 
  • Intentionally keeping wounds from healing 
  • Swallowing toxic substances

Self-harm can likewise incorporate more subtle methods of placing oneself in harm’s way, for example, driving wildly, extreme alcohol consumption, taking drugs, or having reckless sex. For those who harm themselves, it is frequently the main way they know how to: 

  • Cope with emotions like sadness, anxiety, loneliness, guilt, and anger 
  • Express emotions or discharge the torment and pressure they feel inside 
  • Feel in charge of their life 
  • Distract themselves from overwhelming feelings or difficult life situations 
  • Feel something, rather than feeling numb 

For what reason do individuals self-harm? 

The following are some reasons for self harming:

  • to manage extreme emotions 
  • to feel something other than numbness 
  • to reject oneself for feeling deficient or useless 
  • to release pent-up anxiety, stress, guilt,  shame, or anger
  • to release endorphins 
  • to reenact an injury 
  • to distract oneself from overwhelming issues 
  • to communicate one’s intense emotional pain 
  • to feel or reestablish a feeling of control over one’s psyche and body 

What are some of the signs of self-harm? 

These following are sign of self-harm:

  • dressing inappropriately for the weather (ie. wearing long sleeve shirts and long jeans when it is hot outside) 
  • cuts and scars to the arms, wrists, thighs, or stomach 
  • refusal to partake in exercises that reveal skin (eg. swimming, tennis, volleyball)
  • withdrawal from friends and family
  • heavy use of wristbands or bandages 
  • emotional unpredictability 
  • an unexpected amount of bruises, cuts, bite marks, burns, scratches, and/or scars 
  • wounds that are covered up in an attempt to stay discreet 
  • wounds that show up consistently and do not seem to heal

Outcomes of cutting and self-harm 

  • The release of pain that originates from cutting or self-harming is temporary and can result in an inability to healthily cope with difficult emotions and situations.
  • Keeping self-harm a secret is difficult and lonely, which can perpetuate the cycle of self-harm.
  • Unintentional severe injury can occur. Without realizing it, minor self-harm can result in a major injury.
  • A predisposition for more serious issues down the line. Without learning different, adaptive approaches to managing emotions, the chance of depression, substance use dependence, and suicide increase. 
  • Self-harm can become addictive. It might begin as a rare tool to feel better or a way to feel more in charge, yet it can eventually feel like the cutting or self-harming is controlling you. It often transforms from an impulsive action to a necessary fix that becomes difficult to stop. 
  • Most importantly, cutting and self-harm will not help with the issues that made the individual want to hurt themselves. 

Tips to stop self-harm:

These are following tips to stop self-harm:

  1. Confide in somebody 

Taking the step to open up about self-harm is scary. However it can be immensely helpful to let go of the secret and receive the support needed. Starting with someone trusting and close tends to be easier. Ultimately, speaking to a mental health clinician is essential to receive help ceasing the behaviors and developing healthy ways of coping. When it comes time to share, consider these tips:

Concentrate on your feelings: Rather than sharing the nitty gritty records of your self-harm, focus on the feelings and circumstances that lead to it. This can allow for the individual you are trusting to better comprehend where you are coming from. It additionally assists with telling the individual why you are letting them know. 

Convey in the manner you feel most comfortable: In case you are too apprehensive to consider talking face to face, think about beginning the discussion with a text, or if the words are too difficult to speak, write them down. Do not feel forced to share things you are not prepared to discuss at that time. You do not need to show the individual your wounds or answer any inquiries you do not feel comfortable responding to. 

Discussing self-harm can be extremely upsetting and raise a lot of feelings: Do not be disheartened if the circumstance feels worse for a brief time after sharing your secret. It is awkward to change long-standing behaviors. In any case, when you move beyond these underlying difficulties, you will begin to feel much better. 

  1. Identify your self-harm or cutting triggers 

Understanding what triggers the desire to cut or self-harm is an essential to move towards healing. If you can make sense of what your self-injury serves, you can learn different approaches to get those needs met, which can then decrease your desire to hurt yourself. Self-harm is typically a method for managing emotional pain. What emotions result in feeling the need to cut or hurt yourself?

If it is difficult to pinpoint the situations and feelings that trigger the inclination to cut, a mental health clinician can assist. Feelings are significant pieces of information that our bodies provide for us. They do not need to bring about harmful actions such as cutting. Finding a clinician who can provide a safe space for you to share your story and feelings is imperative to the healing process. 

Paying future attention to your emotions as opposed to ignoring them or discharging them through self-harm may sound terrifying, but it is important to feel them to be able to process them and work through them in healthy ways.. 

  1. Find new adaptive methods 

Self-harm can become the standard method for managing negative feelings and difficult circumstances. In the process of stopping self-harm behaviors, new coping mechanisms must be put into place.

If you self-harm an alternative could be: 

  • Paint, draw, or scrawl on a big piece paper with red ink or paint 
  • Start a diary to express your emotions 
  • Compose a poem or song to convey what you feel 
  • Write down any negative feelings and tear the paper up 
  • Listen to music that resonates with what you are feeling 
  • Take a bath or hot shower 
  • Read a book
  • Wrap yourself in a warm blanket 
  • Massage your neck, hands, and feet 
  • Hold an ice cube on your arm or leg 
  • Chew something with an extremely bitter or spicy taste
  • Go online to a self-improvement site, visit room, or message board 
  • Exercise
  • Punch or shout into your pillow 
  • Squeeze a stress ball 
  • Rip something up (pieces of paper, a magazine) 
  • Make some noise (play an instrument)

It is important to get outside help. People can absolutely change behaviors on their own, but it can be easier to do when having a support system. Talking to a trusted friend, family member, or authority figure can make a difference. Finding a mental health clinician to further help the process of healing is also important. 

Self-harm is more than a physical action. It is a maladaptive behavior that further inflicts psychological damage and a key method in working through the self-harm cycle is to see a mental health clinician. There is always a reason someone inflicts harm on themselves; it is not an attention seeking behavior, but a sign that someone has such deep emotional pain that they do not know how to help themselves in an adaptive way. Thus, a mental health clinician is the person who can address the self-harming behaviors and guide the individual through the process of working through their deeper issues.

FAQ’s Questions:

  1. How common is self-harm among the young adult population? 

About 12-24% of the young adult population in the United States self-harm. Roughly 75% have self-harmed more than once. Around 6-8% of the whole young adult population reports ongoing self-harm. 

  1. Is self-harm addictive? 

Researchers have suggested that self-harm possesses some addictive characteristics like illicit drug use. The experience of self-harming is thought to release endorphins and invigorate the body’s endogenous narcotic framework. Both are thought to balance the body’s emotional pain reaction to release feelings of elation or delight. This may clarify why steady self-harm may feel less excruciating after some time and may expand one’s pain resistance. Also, it may explain one’s cyclic inclination to rehash self-harming practices after times of not self-harming.. 

  1. How is self-harm related to suicide? 

While 60% of the individuals who self-harm report never having thoughts of suicide, the pain that drives one to perform self-harming practices may increase the probability of suicide attempts. For the most part, self-harm in this manner is utilized as a maladaptive coping system. Be that as it may, if these maladaptive skills have gone untreated for a long period of time, self-harm may then be fundamental to suicidal ideation. 

  1. What is the color for self-harm awareness?

Orange ribbons signify self-harm awareness.

  1. Is it bad to hit yourself?

Hitting yourself, or any other action that causes pain to your body, can be damaging physically and emotionally. Hitting yourself can begin a cycle of self injurious behaviors that perpetuate maladaptive coping skills.

  1. Why do I like to feel pain?

Pain elicits chemicals in the brain that are similar to what is known as “feel good” chemicals, which are chemicals that are often released when one uses drugs. These could be endorphins, adrenaline, and anandamide, which all created a warm, fuzzy feeling when released. Pain can result in these same feelings sometimes.

  1. Can it be OK to like pain?

Because pain elicits feel good chemicals, it is reasonable to enjoy the feeling of pain sometimes. However, it is not OK to purposely injure oneself because it can begin a cycle of self injurious behavior that creates more psychological and physical pain than it is worth.

For more information about self-harm, check out these readings:

Can I Tell You About Self-Harm?

This book describes self-harm in a way that anyone can understand. Written for ages 7+, this book delineates why people self-harm and how to get help. It dispels some of the common myths surrounding self-harm and aims to open discussions to ultimately end the self-harm cycle.

Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers

This book explains in depth the nuances of cutting and trauma that lead to self-harm. The authors are the directors of S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self Abuse Finally Ends) and comprehensively detail self-harm behaviors and how to get treatment for them.

Helping Teens Who Cut, Second Edition: Using DBT Skills to End Self-Injury

The author is a leading expert on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which is a modality of psychotherapy that has been shown to be beneficial for people who engage in self-harming behaviors. This book gives examples of cases involving teens who self-harm, how DBT can help, and other types of approaches that can help teens who self-harm. 


  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/
  2. https://www.webmd.com

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