Why do people self-harm?

Why do people self-harm?

Friday, 07 January 2022

Self-harm is when someone intentionally damages or injures their body. Also known as self-injury, it can take on many forms, such as cutting, burning, hitting, or scratching.

Risky behaviour that can be harmful is also considered self-harm behaviour. Binge drinking to the point of blacking out or vomiting regularly, restricting food intake, or overeating could be considered risky.

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Understanding self-harm

Although self-harm is very common there is no typical type of person who engages in it.

For those who do self-harm, it can act as a coping mechanism. It can become a way to deal with overwhelming feelings. The reasons for self-harm could include:

  • Feeling unable to communicate difficult feelings
  • Having a negative body image (‘hating’ oneself)
  • Feeling numb (not being able to identify any feelings)
  • As a form of self-punishment
  • To feel in control
  • To provide a distraction from problems.

We know some young people feel relief or a sense of release from those feelings when they engage in self-harm.

However, the relief is temporary and ineffective in the long run. Usually, the feeling of relief only lasts a few minutes, but the scars and physical effects could last much longer.

Self-harm itself can cause someone to feel guilt and shame about the action, which can then feed into a cycle of behaviour. It can also lead us to feel isolated and alone, holding a secret we feel we can’t share.

Working on communicating or managing negative feelings can help you overcome the need to self-harm.

man's midriff on phone

A young person asked

How do you open up to someone about self-harm? I’ve been contemplating telling my mam or sister for the past few days but I’m afraid

Ask Jigsaw: Talking about self-harm

What to do when you’re self harming

If you have been dealing with overwhelming feelings, you deserve to and can feel better.

The effectiveness of self-harm is fleeting. Negative feelings won’t disappear if you continue to hurt yourself, and in fact can escalate. There are many ways to release those negative feelings without physically hurting yourself. Remind yourself that you do deserve to and can feel better.

Talk to someone

Although it may seem difficult, communicating your feelings out loud can provide a huge relief.

Saying “I’m struggling” to a trusted friend, family member, or teacher can start the conversation and help you move away from self-harm and towards support.

If it’s easier, you could show them some information about self-harm to get the ball rolling. Once you open up, give the person time to digest what you have told them.

Initially, they might feel surprised or shocked, but together you will be able to work out the next steps.

Alternatively, you could speak to one of our clinicians about what’s going on and different ways to manage it through Live Chat.

Identify your triggers

There may be particular events, situations, people, times, thoughts, or feelings that give you the urge to hurt yourself. See if you can identify any triggers that you have.

Keeping a diary can be a good way to help you to spot patterns. If you identify triggers, try to take steps to reduce the chances of self-harming at these times.

Five senses

This grounding exercise has proven effective in managing self-harm behaviour

young man with counsellor taking notes

Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques help us to focus. They keep us in the present and maintain control of our emotions in a crisis situation. A grounding exercise that has proven effective in managing self-harm behaviour is called “Five senses”.

In moments of distress, find and concentrate on

  • Five things in the room you can see
  • Four things you can touch
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can taste
  • One thing you can smell.

This grounding technique was designed to reduce stress and increase physical awareness. Like most exercises, it can take a bit of practice.

Start to practice doing it when you are feeling calm and relaxed. This will help you remember to do it when feeling overwhelmed.

Focus on your strengths

What are you telling yourself if you have been engaging in self-harm? Do you tell yourself you’re ‘not good enough’ or that ‘you hate yourself’? Try to think about the things you do like about yourself.

If this is difficult, think about the nice things that your family, friends, or teachers would say about you. What are the compliments you get the most?

Think about the value you offer others in relationships. Write these down and focus on them in moments of insecurity.

>> Find out more about dealing with self-criticism and improving your body image.

Find your toolbox

Develop a set of exercises or techniques to use in moments when you feel like self-harming. This is best done with someone who knows you and can help find those options with you.

This workbook developed by the NHS provides some ideas and ways to cope. If you feel like you don’t have that support and want to find it, you can look through the resources below.

How to support a friend who’s self-harming

There are many ways to support a friend or family member who is self-harming.

One of the best things you can do to support someone is to listen without judgement. It can be a big deal for someone to open up and tell you they have been self-harming. So your reaction is important.

If you’re shocked or upset at hearing that a friend is self-harming – and it can be upsetting – try to stay calm and supportive.

Be aware of your own limitations and boundaries as a friend. You can offer to be a support to a friend, but need to watch in case it becomes too much. Read more about supporting a friend with their mental health.

If you do talk to someone, you may both feel that you need additional support to help you to cope.

Looking for support for self-harm

If you do talk to someone, you may both feel additional support would help you to cope.

If you need help now:

Call or text Samaritans Ireland or Crisis Textline Ireland if you feel like harming yourself at the moment.

Pieta House works with people who are engaging in self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Address underlying issues:

It can be good to get support to help manage feelings that lead you to want to hurt yourself. Find out more about services available for over 18′s and for under 18’s.

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