What is self-harm?
Self-harm is sometimes known as self-injury and describes a wide range of things people do to themselves to harm their body. Often people who self-harm do not want to die, however many experience suicidal thoughts at times.
Some of the ways in which people self-harm include:
- cutting or burning themselves
- hitting or biting themselves
- hitting walls or other hard objects
- pulling out their hair
- taking overdoses.
Other common harmful actions like smoking, excessive drinking, driving dangerously, using substances like glue or taking drugs are NOT usually seen as self-harm in this sense. Eating disorders may be thought by some to be a form of self-harm but are not the focus of this leaflet.
For some, self-harm can continue over many months or years without becoming dangerous, but sometimes it can result in death or permanent injury even if the person themselves does not necessarily intend this. Self-harm needs to be taken seriously, but it is important to respond to it in a calm and helpful way.
Although people rarely talk about self-harm it is relatively common, little understood and can be very distressing.
Why do people self-harm?
The underlying reasons why someone might self-harm are often complex. People may find it difficult to explain why they self-harm and those around them often find it hard to understand. The reasons people self-harm varies widely from person to person and sometimes from one time to the next.
Sometimes self-harm is used as a way of coping with difficult feelings or experiences. This may include anxiety, depression, bullying, being abused or family breakdown but can involve many other problems that people face in their everyday lives. Other reasons commonly described include:
- to relieve tension, pressure or anger
- to feel something - to know you still exist
- to feel in control
- to get a buzz
- to express, escape or stop bad feelings
- to punish yourself because you feel you are ‘bad’
- to let people know how bad things are
- to get people to listen to you.
How other people react to self-harm
Sometimes people who self-harm are accused of attention seeking. They can also be considered a threat to others. This is not usually the case but can lead to unhelpful attitudes and responses from other people. Above all, most people who self-harm need understanding, and their families and friends need support.
Knowing someone is self-harming and not being able to stop them can be very distressing. If it is someone close to you, you may feel angry, confused, frightened, worried and helpless. Sometimes this may cause you to react in unhelpful ways.
Helpful attitudes and approaches
- Helpful attitudes and approaches might include:
- non-judgemental acceptance and respect
- acknowledge and accept the person’s pain and distress
- be supportive, calm and practical
- listen respectfully
- treat the person with dignity
- don’t take it personally
- don’t force things- trust takes time
- never issue ultimatums
Always try to reduce the person’s access to any tablets or other means of self-harm. Talk to
them about this.
What can I do to manage my self-harm?
Some of the following suggestions may help you to control your self-harming behaviour:
- Keep a diary of your self-harm making a note of the situations, thoughts and feelings which triggered it. This may help you to understand it better.
- Keep away from things you may use to harm yourself
- Delay or distract: do something that will take your mind of self-harm or delay the act for example reading a magazine, watching TV, listening to music, go for a walk, finding some company
- Think of alternative non-harmful ways of managing your feelings. You may want to write a list of things to try. This may include:
- talking to someone you trust
- writing down or drawing/painting your feelings
- doing some exercise (go for a run, swim, dance, run up and down the stairs)
- relaxation and breathing exercises
- shout out loud ‘no’ or ‘stop
If you feel you must hurt yourself
- Try less destructive ways of doing it. For example:
- pinching yourself instead of cutting,
- rub an ice-cube where you were tempted to cut
- put an elastic band around your wrist and flick it when you feel like cutting
- Use clean implements
- Learn to clean and dress cuts to avoid infection.
If you have taken an overdose you should attend your local A&E department or GP immediately. There are no safe limits for an overdose.
Real life experience
As a teenager I discovered by accident how much better I could feel when I cut myself. Self-harm gave me a feeling of control that I desperately needed, cutting my self released the tension inside me, reduced my distress and desperation and helped me to keep on living. Even though it was a short lived fix it was worth it. Also by giving myself a physical wound I felt as though I was giving voice to all the pain inside me. I could see how much pain I was in which helped it make more sense to me. I have been cutting myself for such a long time that it seems normal to me and it is something that I know has helped me to survive some really difficult times. At times my self-harm has become dangerous and risky and I have been hospitalised against my will in an attempt to make me safe. Being prevented from self-harming made things worse and I spent all my time finding ever more inventive ways to hurt myself as it was the only way I knew to cope. Without any new ways of coping being put in place I continued to self-harm. I believed that if I had an urge to do something, like self-harm, then that was what I should do. I had never considered or been willing to see that there were other ways of dealing with the feelings I had. By learning new ways of coping and actually being given new practical skills to use my need to self-harm became less.
Though self-harm is something I rarely do now, I reserve the right to do so. This gives me a feeling of safety and security, and it gives me choice and control, and these are the things that were missing in a lot of my life and are things I hold on tightly to now. I am not ashamed of my self-harm - I now accept that in desperation I found an extreme way of surviving extreme circumstances, and it worked for me at that time and I think I should respect that.