Self Harming

What is self-harming?

Self-harming, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation can be defined as the intention to deliberately hurt one’s own body. The reasons people harm themselves are complicated, and may not necessarily mean that a person wants to die, commit suicide, or that they are looking for attention. When people harm themselves, they can be suffering from a great deal of emotional pain inside. For many individuals, self-harming is a very complex coping strategy, which acts as a means of reducing overwhelming tensions, distress, anxiety, self-hatred, as well as other negative emotions. They may feel disconnected and isolated from other people, and hurting themselves is the only way they feel real or connected, Relief from self-harm is often short lived and therefore becomes a cycle that occurs when the negative emotions reappear.

There are many ways in which people self-harm, and these behaviours may include:

–          Cutting the skin with knives, razors or any other sharp object.

–          Burning the skin.

–          Hitting the body with an object or fists.

–          Hair pulling or plucking.

–          Bone breaking.

–          Swallowing pills or sharp objects.

–          Head-banging

Eating disorders and drug addictions may also be ways that people can harm themselves both physically and mentally.

Why do people self-harm?

There are many reasons why people engage in self-harming behaviour. It is usually a symptom of an underlying problem that can quite often be used as a coping mechanism.

Self-harming can be a way that people deal with feelings of

–          Helplessness, despair and low self-esteem.

–          Anger, loneliness, shame and guilt.

–          Not having control over their own life.

Some self-harm can be related to severe emotional pain. When people have experienced abuse or violence, it often reappears as emotional pain later in life. People who have experienced abuse have said that their past experiences had left them with feelings of anger, guilt, self-hatred or distress, and that their self-harming behaviour produces some release from these emotions (cutting or hurting themselves is one way they can regain some control). Some survivors have also noted a lack of feeling, or numbness as a response to the abuse or violence, and that hurting themselves is a way in which to feel ‘something’. They have claimed that the sight of blood often brings a sense of relief and helps them to be able to feel again.

Self-harming may also be used by a person to communicate to others their inner pain or need for help, as well as providing some physical evidence to represent the emotional scars of the abuse. There are times when self-harming behaviours may be used as a form of punishment that stems from self-blame or guilt. It is important not to ignore these feelings, as they are part of the response to sexual assault, and may need to be addressed with a counsellor.

The risks of self-harming

If you are harming yourself you may not be aware of some of the negative effects it can have on your body and mind. By expressing yourself through self-harming behaviour, you may not be, or feel able to deal with the underlying issues such as depression or emotional pain. People who self-harm usually engage in this behaviour on their own, and this can be an isolating experience. There is a risk also that without meaning to, people engaging in self-harming behaviour may go too far and seriously injure themselves, which could result in death. Cuts and burns can sometimes become infected if not looked after, and can cause permanent scars.

How can I stop self-harming?

It can be difficult to stop self-harming without having other ways of coping to replace it. Changing any kind of behaviour is difficult, and deciding to change is a decision that only you can make for yourself. As with any kind of addiction, you must be kind to yourself and understand that you may fall back into old patterns of behaviour quickly – but it does not mean you have to give up trying.

Some suggestions for helping you to stop self harming:

–          Take yourself away from risky situations – something as simple as removing yourself from the presence of knives and razors works for some people.

–          Try and focus on something around you, rather than on the pain you are feeling. ‘Grounding’ yourself helps you to be more in control of you reaction to those difficult feelings.

–          Make a list of supportive friends that you can talk to who understand your situation and call them when you feel you need to.

–          Try deep breathing and relaxation techniques.

–          Write in a journal – record how you feel and the reasons why you might want to harm yourself. Ask yourself what has happened to trigger this feeling now. Identifying the cause of the feeling that is happening now may also allow you to find an alternative to the feeling.

–          You could try holding ice cubes in your hand – cold causes pain but is not dangerous to your health.

–          Use a red pen on the areas you might normally cut.

–          Work it off with exercise.

–          Call a crisis line if you feel your behaviour is becoming dangerous.

–          Speaking with an experienced counsellor.

Laurel House can provide a confidential, non-judgemental, safe environment to discuss underlying issues and suggest alternatives to self-harming behaviour.


How can I help if I know someone who is harming themselves?

Finding out that someone you care about is hurting themselves can be hard. It is hard not to take it personally, and you may want to force the person to stop because it makes you feel uncomfortable. Try not to take it personally, the person is not doing it to make you feel bad or guilty, and find out as much information as you can to support this person.

Be supportive without reinforcing the behaviour by letting the person know that you are there for them if he/she wants to talk. Make the initial approach, but don’t push that person to disclose the information. If you are concerned about the person but unsure how to bring it up, then speak with a counsellor or help line for more information or strategies.

And finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Recognise that this is a difficult situation and you need time to adjust and make sure you are caring for your needs as well as the person you are caring for.

For more information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email