Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body as a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming feelings, memories or experiences. While self-harm may make some people feel better and more able to cope in the short-term it can also raise complex and uncomfortable feelings (such as guilt or shame) that may make the person feel worse in the long term. It may also lead to serious injury, illness or death.


Because people who self-harm may worry about other people’s reactions to their behaviour they may keep it a secret, although this Is not always the case.


Some people have described self-harm as a way to:


  • Express something that is hard to put into words
  • Transform emotional pain into physical pain
  • Gain a sense of control over your body
  • Escape traumatic memories
  • Communicate to others the amount of distress you are In
  • Reduce overwhelming feelings or thoughts
  • Stop feeling numb or disconnected
  • Express suicidal feelings without taking your life
  • To punish yourself for perceived faults and failings


Helping yourself to stop self-harming can be a very empowering and positive experience but it can also take time and include difficult periods where old behaviours may return after a period of progress. If this happens, it is important to recognise that you have not failed but that it is part of the process of stopping.


Keeping a diary or journal of what happens before, during and after you self-harm will help you to understand what causes you to self-harm, when an incident may be about to occur and what urges are driving your behaviour.


Some urges may be:


  • A racing heart, nausea, or very shallow breathing
  • Feelings of disconnection from yourself or a loss of all feelings
  • Specific thoughts such as ‘cut yourself’ or ‘do it’
  • Feelings of heaviness or fogginess
  • Strong feelings like fear, despair or rage


Choosing to distract yourself from the idea of self-harming can be an effective way of taking control of the urges. There are many different strategies that people use to distract themselves from the urge to self-harm: punching cushions, shouting, writing down your feelings, scribbling on paper, concentrating on slowing your breathing, listening to music, talking to someone, running, tearing up paper, folding washing, painting and drawing.


You may find that some distractions work in some situations but not in others and you can then work on creating a kind of ‘menu’ of distractions for different situations.  Delaying is another technique that can help – waiting for ten minutes before self-harming and then increasing the delay to longer and longer periods. You may start self-harming again, but you will have proved to yourself that you have some control over your actions, and you can build on that.


Working in a safe environment with a counsellor who is accepting and does not judge you may give you the time and space to better understand the reasons for your self-harm and the feelings that come with it.

Links to support organisations

  • National Self Harm Network

    NHSN support individuals who self harm to reduce emotional distress and improve their quality of life. This is an online forum that is closely monitored.