What is Self-Harm?

Published on 8th July, 2021

What is Self-Harm?

Self-Harm: What does it mean

Self-harm occurs when an individual intentionally hurts or injures his/her own body. Though it is not considered a mental disorder, mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder are found to be associated with self-harm behaviours. This pattern of behaviour indicates an unhealthy way of coping with strong emotions. Individuals who have gone through trauma, neglect or abuse are at higher risk of engaging in such behaviours. Self-harm behaviours could occur as a reaction to increase in stress due to school or work, difficult feelings such as anger or numbness, or low self-esteem. Individuals who are frequently bullied, who may have Engaging in self-harm behaviours may seem to relieve strong feelings that overwhelm individuals.

Self harm behaviours could include the following:

  • cutting or severely scratching your skin
  • burning or scalding yourself
  • hitting yourself or banging your head
  • inserting objects into your body
  • deliberately preventing wounds from healing
  • poisoning yourself
  • excessively exercising
  • over or under-eating
  • misusing medicines, alcohol or recreational drugs
  • engaging in risky behaviours

By harming themselves, individuals may be attempting to punish themselves, block upsetting memories or regain a sense of control. Regardless of their motivation to self-harm, the behaviour indicates a call for help.

How do I know if someone is engaging in Self-Harm?

Here are some signs that could indicate an individual is hurting themselves:

  • having frequent cuts, bruises or scars
  • wearing long sleeve attires even if weather is hot
  • not being able to provide valid reasons for injuries
  • referring to themselves as worthless, or hopeless
  • carrying sharp objects with them
  • behavioural and emotional difficulties
  • interpersonal relationship difficulties

Though self-harm rates are higher in adolescence and young adult years, adults may also engage in self-harm. For some, injuring oneself stimulates the body’s pain-killing hormones and raises their mood. For certain individuals, causing injury to feel pain helps replace the emotional numbness they feel.

The temporary relief an individual feels from injuring themselves dissipates and gives way to feelings of shame and guilt for engaging in the behaviour. As the underlying cause of self-harm is not resolved, the individual would turn to self-harm as a way to cope with the shame and guilt. Understanding the reasons behind their behaviour and learning healthier ways to manage their emotions would be the solution to break the cycle of self-harm.

What can I do to cope with Self-harm or help someone with coping?

Labelling an individual’s self-harm behaviour as attention-seeking or making judgemental statements would not help the individual overcome their difficulties. It is important to remember that these behaviours are an indication of the person needing help. Though individuals engaging in self-harm behaviours may not be suicidal, it could represent an alternative to suicide and could eventually lead to it. If you know of someone who needs help, provide support and communicate. Be empathetic and reassure them you are available for them when they need you instead of pushing them to open up to you.

1) Contact a trained professional for help. Our therapists and psychologists are trained to communicate sensitively and without judgement. We understand that it takes immense courage to reach out and ask for support or help. We are aware that there may be stigma you face due to your difficulties. Treatment plans would be tailored to your individual needs and with your concerns taken note of.

2) Find new methods to cope with or delay your urges. Individuals engage in self-harm behaviour when they are feeling a difficult emotion like anger, anxiety, shame or guilt. Recognising your trigger and the consequent emotion would help in identifying urges that contribute to the cycle of harming yourself. Based on these information you can make a plan with different strategies so that you are prepared the next time you feel the urges. Strategies could include engaging in activities such as painting, taking a stroll, wrapping yourself in a warm blanket to soothe yourself or taking a cold shower to reduce feeling emotionally numb.

3) Understand that your self-harm behaviour has a function. Knowing that your behaviour has a function, identifying and being aware of the function helps you in the process of replacing your behaviour. Note how you feel before and after engaging in self-harm behaviours, and if there are particular thoughts, situations or objects that act as a trigger to these behaviours. Knowing the function and triggers could help you delay engaging in self-harm behaviours as you are aware of the reason for your urges. Accepting the feelings and delaying the behaviour may sound daunting. However it is good to remember that emotions are transient and when not focused on it will fade and be replaced by another emotion.

4) Avoid consuming alcohol or recreational drug use. Alcohol and certain drugs inhibit decision making skills and may increase the risk of an individual engaging in self-harm behaviours. When the effects of these wear off, they could leave you feeling anxious, or depressed contributing to your urges to self-harm.