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. If you know a friend is self-harming, check out our article Worried About a Friend Who Is Self-Harming.

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, continuing to do it again until you no longer feel the urge. Delaying it or putting yourself in a place where you can’t do it may help the urge pass.

  • Write in a journal. If you’re fearful someone may read a hard copy of your journal, there’s lots of other options you can use. You could try to using an online journal or blog that is password protected or anonymous. There are also a lot of apps where you can vent about your feelings anonymously and receive support from people going through similar things.

  • Draw or write in marker over your body. 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. Sometimes, writing a message of support over your scars can also be helpful, such as using a semicolon to represent not giving up, writing lyrics that speak to you, or drawing the word “love” in a special font.

  • Exercise. Go for a run or walk in the park to use up excess energy. Not only is it a good distraction, but it’s beneficial for your mind and body. Learn more about the benefits of exercise here.

  • 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. It might be a good idea to create a playlist that’ll make you feel better. It can be easy to put on a bunch of sad songs that match how you’re feeling, but sometimes that can keep you in a low place. Try to find songs that make you feel good.

  • Use relaxation techniques. Activities like yoga or meditation are often helpful in reducing anxiety. Taking a hot shower or bath can also be soothing and is a good way to relax your mind. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to keep you present and to help shush all the thoughts going through your mind.

  • Cry. Crying is a healthy and normal way to express your sadness or frustrations. Allow yourself to let it out. It doesn’t make you weak to cry, but if you’re uncomfortable crying in front of others, go someplace private where you can have that release.

  • Talk to someone. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk about what you’re feeling with a trusted friend or by calling a helpline. Talking about things other than your problems can also help in the short-term, distracting you from wanting to self-harm. It is important, however, to find someone you can share things with so you don’t feel alone in your struggles.

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, or holding them over your scars

  • 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)

  • Painting your nails (keeps you from doing much with your hands)

  • Love on your pets

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 you’re seeing a therapist or mental health professional for the first time, check out this article to learn more about what to expect and how to prepare for your first visit.

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 at 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