What is self-harm?

Self-harm is described as any behaviour where an individual does a deliberate act that results in immediate physical injury to oneself and includes the following: cutting, punching oneself, burning, scratching, picking, binge eating or starvation and risk-taking behaviors. It is not necessarily a suicide attempt and may not mean the person wants to die.


Reasons why people self-harm?

Self harm is often referred to as a coping strategy (albeit negative) that individuals do to decrease intense emotional feeling or psychological distress. For the individual this can provide short-term relief from the painful feelings or distress however, in the long-term there are often more negative impacts for this behaviors. Therapy therefore needs to focus on developing alternative healthier coping strategies.

From a positive psychology view point it is recognized that the individual has found a way to regulate or cope with their distressing emotions, the role of the therapist is to recognise and highlight that this behaviour may have helped in some way in the past and support them to find alternative healthier coping strategies.

There are many reasons why young people Self-harm, these are some self reports:

  • “To feel as bad physically as they did emotionally”
  • “To vent frustrations”
  • “I wanted to hurt myself because I deserved it”
  • “To express anger”
  • “To feel alive”
  • “To communicate my unhappiness in the hope someone would notice”
  • “Cutting makes the blood take away the bad feelings”


How to get help:

Social support has been found to be a key factor in protecting individuals from negative consequences of difficult life events, therefore increasing positive social supports for an individual is important. This can include family support and seeking the support of a GP or health professional to assess and treat the possible underlying causes for the self-harm behaviour, and reducing the impulse to self-harm.

A GP will likely refer you to a psychologist. If you are supporting someone you know that is self-harming it can be sometimes overwhelming at first and remember that they may be feeling extremely distressed and that self-harm may be the only way they have of communicating their feelings.

Allowing the individual an opportunity to talk about how they feel, it’s ok to be clear and honest about your feelings. Explain that their behaviour upsets you but that you understand it helps them to cope.

Remember positive social support can make a real difference and you can be the difference to the road to change and encouraging them to seek professional help. Supporting someone who is self-harming can be upsetting, you may need to find someone who can support you.

Some healthier alternatives to self-harming behaviour.

The first step to reducing self-harm behaviour is to understand your self-harm patterns and other options available to meet your needs. Here are some alternatives:


Delay and Distraction

Make a bargain with yourself not to self-harm for the next 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or 1 hour. Remind yourself of why you want to work on changing this behavior. Select a time that seems realistic and do-able. Once you’ve waited the selected time reassess your feelings and thoughts. If the need to self-harm is still present, delay it longer. While you’re delaying, distract yourself with activities that will allow you to express or contain feelings, ground yourself in the present, relax, and/or self-soothe.

Listed below are activities that might provide a similar release without direct harm to yourself or others.

  • Tearing up paper
  • Ripping up clay or Play-Doh
  • Throwing ice cubes or eggs into the bathtub or shower
  • Punching pillows or other soft surfaces
  • Exercise
  • Journaling, writing stories and/or poetry
  • Drawing, doodling, painting, colouring
  • Taking a cold shower
  • Holding an ice-cube or touching a sensitive area (e.g., under arm or on wrist) with an ice cube
  • Rubbing a hot/cold cream (used for muscle pain) on your skin
  • Snapping a rubber band on your wrist
  • Rubbing a brush or cloth on your skin


Grounding Techniques

When you’re overwhelmed or upset you might find yourself thinking about past hurts and traumas or worrying about what might happen in the future. Grounding yourself in the present helps to make the feelings and thoughts more manageable as you focus on the ‘here and now’. The following activities may ground and calm you.

  • Noticing your environment– what you see, smell, feel, taste, and hear
  • Stomping your feet on the ground, and/or rubbing or clapping your hands together
  • Focusing on your breathing– notice each inhalation and exhalation
  • Consuming something warm (e.g., tea) or cold (e.g., popsicle or ice cube)
  • Smelling an orange and then noticing the strong citrus flavor as you eat it
  • Calling/talking to a friend or contacting someone online


Supportive Resources

Talk About It: Share your feelings and thoughts with someone you trust: friends, family members, intimate partner, counsellor, crisis worker, religious or spiritual leader and/or doctor. Develop a strong support network to help.

Seek support of a Psychologist, you can explore underlying causes and meanings to your self-harming behaviour.

Addressing these issues will help with your recovery and long-term healing. For example, psychology might help you learn how to regulate, contain and/or tolerate strong emotions, develop and maintain healthy, supportive relationships, and enhance your self-worth.

Seek Professional Medical Attention: Self-harming behaviours can result in significant injury and accidental death.

It is important to treat and care for your injuries. Be sure to contact emergency medical services 000 when needed!

Telephone counselling

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Joanne Edmond
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