What is Self-Harm?
Self-harm is when you cause harm to yourself on purpose. There are many different reasons why someone might self-harm, but often it is a way of coping with feelings, or a situation that is really overwhelming and difficult to deal with. Some people might not know or understand why they hurt themselves, or they might feel ‘numb’ and use self-harm as a way of feeling something. Another reason people might hurt themselves is because they are feeling really angry and think they deserve the pain.
Most people think of cutting when they think of self-harm, but it can also include things like hitting, biting or burning yourself. Some of the ways that people hurt themselves might not be obvious and may not leave marks. Self-harm also includes doing things that put you at risk of harm, such as getting into fights, using drugs, drinking alcohol, or choosing not to eat.
Some people wrongly think that self-harm is ‘just attention seeking’, but saying things like this is not helpful and can stop people from reaching out for support. Most people who self-harm actually try very hard to hide this from other people and can feel really ashamed by it.
Autistic people who struggle with alexithymia are more likely to self-harm than non-autistic people. Even if feelings are difficult to identify and understand, they can still feel really big and overwhelming, and often not being able to understand them can add to the feeling of distress.
Sometimes negative thoughts and feelings can be so overwhelming that it can feel like the only way to let them out is to self-harm. Therefore, some people self-harm as a way of trying to avoid experiencing a meltdown or shutdown, or as a way to distract themselves from suicidal thoughts.
If you are struggling with self-harm
Self-harm is a ‘coping tool’, but it’s not a very good one long term. Hurting yourself can help you feel better in the moment, but it is not helping to fix whatever is causing your distress in the first place.
Thinking about the reasons why you want to hurt yourself, or what triggers the feelings, can help you to figure out what can improve the situation. If you recognise that you self-harm because of feelings of overwhelm, it is important to see if you can find ways of reducing those feelings.
It may be more difficult to stop self-harm if you have not yet worked out how to reduce the feelings of distress, so it is also important to try and find replacement coping strategies for when you feel overwhelmed instead of self-harm.
It’s a good idea to find a trusted adult to talk to about your self-harm, so they can support you – especially if you are having suicidal thoughts too. It might be a hard subject to talk about because it might be linked to feelings you cannot name or understand, or even a situation that you don’t want to explain. You might also feel ashamed, or worried that people will be angry with you, but keeping your self-harm a secret can stop you getting the help that you need and deserve.
Things that can help
While it is important to figure out what will help long term, when you feel the urge to self-harm, one of these tools might help in the moment. If stopping all together feels too difficult, you can start by just trying to delay hurting yourself, extending the delay each time.
- Get rid of anything you use to hurt yourself
- Keep your hands busy by gaming, knitting, drawing, stimming with a fidget
- Draw on yourself
- ‘Twang’ an elastic or hair band around your wrist
- Breathing exercises
- Hold an ice cube or run it along your skin
- Spend time with pets or other people who cheer you up
- Go for a walk
- Write down how you feel (if you use paper you could also rip it up afterwards)
- Listen to music/dance/sing
- Make and use a ‘coping kit’
- Use an app like Calm Harm
Even if you really want to stop self-harming it can take a while to figure out new coping strategies, so it’s important to also try and keep yourself as safe as possible if you do cause any injuries. This can include things like making sure you clean and look after any wounds and talking to someone you trust if you have hurt yourself. If you have seriously injured yourself you should always seek medical help.
Try not to be too hard on yourself if you find you ‘relapse’ after managing to stop for a while. Stopping self-harm once you have been using it as a coping tool can be really difficult, so it’s okay if you still have times when you struggle.
Coping with judgement from others
Unfortunately, there are going to be people who don’t understand self-harm and the reasons why you do or have done it. These people might make judgy comments and make you feel bad. You deserve to have people in your life who love and support you, so try to focus on what they say, rather than those people who don’t understand you.
Some people don’t mind their self-harm scars, or may even feel like they are part of their history and ‘story’ of who they are so feel okay having them on show. If you do feel self-conscious about your scars though, you could try using scar-reducing oils and creams. There is also special make-up for hiding scars, called skin camouflage.