What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when a person feels the need to hurt themselves, and people can self-harm for different reasons. It can be to deal with strong emotions, like anger or sadness or unbearable tension that they feel unable to cope with.

Sometimes it’s to punish themselves for things they feel guilty about or to gain attention.  It can also be due to intrusive thoughts, or to make them feel like they have some sort of control.

Whatever the reason there is generally, but not always, an underlying cause that triggers it, and it can be a precursor of suicidal thoughts or suicide.


The need to self-harm can affect anyone, but it is more frequent but not exclusive to the following groups:

  • Young people
  • People with mental health issues
  • People who have suffered abuse in childhood
  • The LGBTQI+ community who might suffer victimisation or prejudice.
  • People who have lost loved ones to suicide
  • Veterans
  • People who have suffered abuse
  • Asylum seekers or prisoners
  • People who have been bullied

Physical Symptoms

  • Scratch marks
  • Bite marks
  • Burns
  • Bruises
  • Cuts
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Not eating or over exercising

Psychological Symptoms

  • Feelings of guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Low self-worth
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Grief
  • Low confidence

Behavioural Changes

When people start to self-harm they can become withdrawn or secretive in an attempt to hide it.  They might seem anxious or depressed and might communicate less than they previously did.  They often fail to take care of their wounds and injuries which can lead to infection.

Self Help

It can be difficult for people to stop self-harming as they may feel they have no other way to deal with their emotions. Whether they decide to stop or try to reduce the amount or severity of their self-harming, the decision should always be theirs. 

Distraction techniques can prove helpful as a form of self-help which you can try the next time you feel the need to self-harm.  

  • Try setting yourself a time limit before you start self-harming
  • Instead of hurting yourself try punching or kicking a pillow
  • Scream into a cushion to try and relieve your feelings
  • Put an elastic band on your wrist and snap it
  • Bite into a piece of chilli or ginger
  • Try squeezing an ice cube in your hand as hard as you can.
  • Write down how you feel then tear the paper up
  • Go for a walk somewhere nice or dance to music you like to try and distract yourself

Talking to family or friends can be difficult but there is information available on-line, including organisations that can provide help and advice.

Professional Health

Try to seek help from your doctor, whilst medication is not prescribed for self-harm it could be for any undiagnosed mental health issues. 

They can also recommend therapies like problem solving therapy, psychodynamic therapy and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) all of which can be helpful in overcoming your need to self-harm. 

Written by Jan, Jeana and Wendy at Barnsley Hypnosis and Counselling (UK).  For more free information click above link.