Deliberate Self-Harm

Self-Harm and Coping

What is self-harm? What if my friend is self-harming? What can I do if I don’t want to self-harm, but still have the urge?

What is deliberate self-harm?

Deliberate self-harm (also known as self-injury or non-suicidal self-injury) is when you deliberately inflict physical harm on yourself, usually in secret. Some examples are cutting, burning, biting or hitting your body, pulling out hair, or scratching and picking at sores on your skin.

Deliberate self-harm is not necessarily a suicide attempt, and engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. Most commonly, deliberate self-harm is a behavior that is used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

Why do people deliberately harm themselves?

People who deliberately harm themselves have often had tough experiences or relationships in their lives. They may have:

  • Been bullied or discriminated against;

  • Lost someone close to them, such as a parent, sibling or friend;

  • Broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend;

  • Been physically or sexually abused;

  • Experienced a serious illness or disability that affects the way you feel about yourself;

  • Experienced problems with family, school or peer groups.

Deliberate self-harm may be used as a way to cope with experiences and strong feelings. Self-harm might:

  • Provide a way to express difficult or hidden feelings. It’s not uncommon to feel numb or empty as a result of overwhelming feelings you may be experiencing. Engaging in deliberate self-harm may provide you with a temporary sense of feeling again. It may also provide a way to express anger, sadness, grief or emotional pain;

  • Be a way of communicating to people that you need some support when you feel unable to use words or any other way to do so;

  • Act as a form of self-punishment for times you feel you may have failed;

  • Be a way of proving to yourself that you are not invisible;

  • Provide you with a feeling of control: You might feel that self-harm is one way you can have a sense of control over your life, feelings or body, especially if you feel as if other things in your life are out of control.

Deliberate self-harm can bring an immediate sense of relief, but it is only a temporary solution. It can also cause permanent damage to your body if you injure nerves. Psychologically, it may be associated with a sense of guilt, depression, low self-esteem or self-hatred along with a tendency to isolate yourself from others.

Coping without harming yourself

Along with support from a friend, family member or health professional, it might also be helpful to write a list of alternative strategies to self-harm for managing your emotions.

If you feel like you want to harm yourself, there are a number of things that you can try to distract yourself until the feelings become more manageable. If you can, make sure that you’re around other people and remove any sharp objects from the area.

Some ideas for releasing energy or feelings include:

  • Choose to put off harming yourself until you’ve spoken to someone else or waited for 15 minutes. See if you can extend it for another 15 minutes beyond that, continue to do it again until the feelings pass;

  • Write in a journal. You might try to use an online journal that is password protected;

  • Draw or write in marker over your body instead of cutting. Expressing difficult feelings through actions can be helpful. However, if you are able to verbalize and symbolize difficult feelings through words and/or artwork, this can be a healthier, more sophisticated way of coping;

  • Exercise. Go for a run or walk in the park to use up excess energy;

  • Play video games. This might be a good way to distract yourself and help until the anxiety passes;

  • Yell or sing at the top of your lungs on your own or to music. You might do this into a pillow if you don’t want other people in the house to hear;

  • Use Relaxation techniques. Activities like yoga or meditation are often helpful in reducing anxiety;

  • Cry. Crying is a healthy and normal way to express your sadness or frustrations;

  • Talk to someone, like a trusted friend, or call a helpline

Alternatives to deliberate self-harm

If the above suggestions don’t help and you still feel the need to self harm, there are a number of things that you can do that won’t cause injury like:

  • Punching a pillow or punching bag;

  • Squeezing ice cubes until your fingers go numb;

  • Eating a chili, or something really spicy;

  • Taking a cold shower;

  • Putting vapor rub under your nose (it stings and makes you cry);

  • Waxing your legs (or getting them waxed).

Finding help

Although it might seem hard, it’s important that you reach out to someone who can help you find healthier, positive alternatives to alleviate the pain you feel inside. It may take time, but it’s important to remember that you can move to a happier and healthier outlook.

Speaking to someone about your self-harm might be hard, and it’s important to trust the person you’re speaking with.

If you’re having a hard time talking about what you’re going through, you might start with sentences such as ”Right now, I’m feeling…”; ”I think it started when…”; “I’ve been feeling this for…”; ”My sleep has been…”; “‘Lately school/work has been…”

Like any relationship, building trust with your counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist may take time and it is important you find someone you feel comfortable with. This may mean seeing several people before finding the one that you “click” with.

If there is a family member you feel comfortable telling, it might be helpful for you to have their support in finding a counselor that is right for you. It’s likely that the person you feel comfortable telling will already be worried about you and will be relieved to have the opportunity to listen and help.

If you don’t get a positive response, try to remember that it’s not because you’ve done something wrong, but because the person you have told may not know how to respond to what you have told them, or might not understand much about deliberate self-harm.

Don’t give up! Either try again or speak to someone else you think you might receive a more supportive response from.

If talking with someone is too overwhelming, an alternative is to e-mail or write down what you want to say. Otherwise, a first step might be to call a 24/7 helpline, such as Lines for Life (1-800-273-8255) if you are feeling in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, or youth helpline YouthLine at 1 (877) 968-8491 or by texting teen2teen to 839863.

If you or a friend are harming yourselves, it’s also important that you take care of the injuries caused and if necessary, seek medical help through your doctor or, if it’s serious, a hospital’s emergency department.

In most situations, doctors and other health professionals must keep your information confidential. However, they are required to report information they receive if they have serious concerns about your safety.

Take care of yourself

It’s important to eat well, exercise and be kind to yourself. While not a solution in itself, doing all these things contribute to a higher sense of self-worth, increased stability of moods, and a general better sense of well being — making you feel more happy on the outside and the inside.

Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for