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Self Harm

What is Self-harm?

Sometimes people might feel so distressed that they hurt themselves deliberately or make themselves ill.  People do this in many ways including cutting, overdosing on medications or harmful substances, burning themselves, swallowing objects or hitting their head/body off of hard surfaces. 

Why do people harm themselves?

Many people who self-harm describe how it is a relief to feel physical pain rather than feeling over-whelmed with emotional pain.  The sensations that come from the self-harm distract them from feelings that they find intolerable (e.g. anger or over-whelming sadness).  Sometimes people self-harm because they believe that they are bad and deserve to be punished. 

Self-harming can therefore be understood as a way of coping with intense distress.  It is rare that the reason someone starts to self-harm is because they want to get a reaction from other people. In fact people can find it hard to admit that they self-harm.  They may feel ashamed of it or worry that it means they are "crazy".

Self-harm is rarely an attempt at suicide.  In fact self-harming can often deflect people from attempting suicide.

Many people who repeatedly self-harm have a history of being separated from caregivers in childhood or experiencing childhood sexual abuse or neglect. These experiences can make it harder for them to tap into their inner resources and cope differently.

Alternatives to self-harm

Unfortunately, self-harming is not a good way of coping with emotional pain.  It stops you learning how to tolerate and manage emotional distress - which is a normal part of life.  It can also place your health at risk.  The Centre for Clinical Interventions has developed a self help programme -Facing your Feelings - to help people get better at coping with distress. 

If you have the urge to self-harm

The urge to self-harm can feel very intense and very sudden.  At that moment you may need help to "ride the wave" of the feelings without hurting yourself. 

People have found these things helpful when they feel the urge to self-harm:

  • Placing an elastic band around your wrist and pinging it
  • Holding or chewing an ice cube (you can use red food dye when freezing to make it look like blood)
  • Holding an egg in your hand and crushing it
  • Writing or marking yourself with a red (non-permanent) pen

When you feel the urge to self-harm you may find that your heart beats faster and your mind races. Sometimes, being able to focus on something else  - distract yourself - can help you calm down enough to let the feelings start to pass.

If distracting yourself isn’t working it might help to calm your body down so you feel more relaxed -

  • Take a deep breath down to your stomach
  • Hold your breath briefly
  • Then slowly let your breath out

Do this 3 or 4 times. This can help you calm down. It will also reduce the panicky feelings you might get when you feel the urge to self-harm.

Self-help documents

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