About self-harm

Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, old memories, or overwhelming situations and experiences. The ways you hurt yourself can be physical, such as cutting yourself. They can also be less obvious, such as putting yourself in risky situations, or not looking after your own physical or emotional needs.

Ways of self-harming can include:

cutting yourself
poisoning yourself
over-eating or under-eating
burning your skin
inserting objects into your body
hitting yourself or walls
overdosing
exercising excessively
scratching and hair pulling.

After self-harming, you might feel better and more able to cope for a while. However, self-harm can bring up very difficult feelings and could make you feel worse.

If you self-harm, you may feel embarrassed or ashamed about it. You might be worried that other people will judge you or pressurise you to stop if you tell them about it. This may mean that you keep your selfharming a secret. This is a very common reaction, although not everyone does this.

Why do people harm themselves?

There are no fixed rules about why people self-harm. For some people, it can be linked to specific experiences, and be a way of dealing with something that is happening now, or that happened in the past. For others, it is less clear. If you don’t understand the reasons for your selfharm, it’s important to remind yourself that this is OK, and you don’t need to know this in order to ask for help.

Any difficult experience can cause someone to self-harm. Common causes include:

pressures at school or work
bullying
money worries
sexual, physical or emotional abuse
bereavement
confusion about your sexuality
breakdown of relationships
an illness or health problem
difficult feelings, such as depression, anxiety, anger or numbness, experienced as part of a mental health problem.

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

express something that is hard to put into words
make experiences, thoughts or feelings that feel invisible into something visible
change emotional pain into physical pain
reduce overwhelming emotional feelings or thoughts
have a sense of being in control
escape traumatic memories
stop feeling numb, disconnected or dissociated (see dissociative disorders)
create a reason to physically care for yourself
express suicidal feelings and thoughts without taking your own life
communicate to other people that you are experiencing severe distress.
 

I used to cut myself just so I could feel pain. [It] let me know I was real and I wasn't in a dream.

I ‘needed’ to harm to punish myself for being what I believed then to be a terrible person and to clear the fog in my head. As soon as I did, I'd feel in control, calm and as though a reset button had been pressed in my head.

Sometimes people talk about self-harm as attention-seeking. If people make comments like this, it can leave you feeling judged and alienated. In reality, most people keep their self-harm private, and it can feel very painful to have your behaviour misunderstood in this way.

If you do self-harm as a way of bringing attention to yourself, remember that you deserve a respectful response from those around you, including from medical professionals.

I found that cleaning and dressing wounds or taking myself to A&E for sutures was the only time I was kind to myself.

To read the full factsheet, including information on symptoms, causes, self-help treatment & support and more, please click here. Please note, this will take you to the National Mind website.