What Is Self-Harm?

There are many different ways people engage in self-harm, and it can be a widely misunderstood topic. Self-harm is an action taken to intentionally cause pain, discomfort, or harm to one’s self; this is not always limited to visible forms of injury. Self-harm is also inclusive of over-exercising, misuse of drugs and alcohol, restriction of food, having unsafe sex, or getting into fights. The distinguishing factor is motivation behind the acts or intentions.

Although anyone can engage in self-harm behavior, it is important to recognize where it is most common:

  • Individuals suffering with mental health concerns such as: depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, or eating disorders
  • LGBTQ+ population, often associated with stress of stigma or discrimination
  • Survivors of abuse
  • Individuals who suffer with intrusive thoughts or suicidal ideation
  • Teenagers or young adults

Why do people self-harm?

There are many different reasons that someone self-harms, however the common misconception is that it is tied to suicidality or active suicidal ideation. This can be a harmful and stigmatizing misunderstanding of self-harm. Not all those that engage in self-harm are suicidal or even have thoughts of suicide, just as not all those who battle suicidal ideation engage in self-harm. It’s important to remember that most individuals who self-harm do not want to die.

Sometimes self-harm is a form of attempting to manage stress or upsetting situations of the past or present. Self-harm can also be an attempt to overcome overwhelming or difficult emotions such as sadness, hopelessness, or guilt. Many individuals who self-harm describe searching for the desire to “feel something” or recover from feelings of numbness or inability to vocalize emotions. Physical pain can also serve as a distraction from emotional pain.

Others self-harm to feel a sense of control or ownership over their bodies, or to punish themselves for not being good enough. Self-harm can also provide temporary relief, although it does not resolve the underlying concerns or issues, which in turn can build up over time. Aspects of self-harm behaviors can be addictive in nature, as they provide temporary relief, however become a “quick fix” or a compulsive response to stress or complex emotions

Caring for yourself

If you are wanting to stop or reduce self-harm, here are some strategies to implement while working alongside a medical professional.

  • Exercise: Regular exercise can help reduce and manage distressing symptoms, improve focus and concentration, and decrease stress.
  • Sleep: Adequate sleep is important for managing distressing symptoms. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and establish a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Nutrition: A healthy diet can help improve distressing symptoms. Avoid foods high in sugar and processed foods, and focus on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean protein.
  • Stress management: Stress can exacerbate distressing symptoms, so it’s important to find healthy ways to manage stress. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing can be helpful.
  • Support system: Having a supportive network of family, friends, and healthcare professionals can be beneficial in managing self-harm. Seek out support groups or organizations dedicated to self-harm awareness and advocacy.

Remember, everyone’s experience with depression or related disorders is different, so it’s important to work with a healthcare professional to develop a personalized plan for managing your symptoms and improving your quality of life.

Helping Someone Who Self-Harms.

It can be upsetting and shocking to be faced with someone you love engaging in self-harm behaviors, and it can also be hard to understand why. The best support you can provide is creating a judgment free zone where fear or panic is minimal or not present. The calmer you are, the safer the one you love will feel to discuss self-harm.

If someone you love chooses to talk with you about their self-harm, simply listen and offer to help them find support if they feel that is what they are ready for. It is important to remember that they are the ones in control of the support they feel they need.

Getting support

Talking about self-harm can be very challenging due to the shame, guilt, or feelings of being misunderstood that often play into the behavior. Speaking with a medical provider, healthcare professional, or mental health professional in a non-judgmental setting can allow you to feel safe talking about self-harm.

If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or that you may attempt suicide, call 911 or local emergency number IMMEDIATELY.

  • Contact suicide hotline: Call 988, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Veterans/Service members: Call 988 and press 1 “Veteran Crisis Line”
  • Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for Spanish Speakers: 1-888-628-9454

Speaking with a mental health professional that can implement clinical sound treatment models of therapy for self-harm such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Development of alternative coping strategies
  • Medication for anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions

Therapy can be a valuable resource for those struggling with self-harm. In therapy, individuals can explore the underlying issues and triggers that contribute to their self-harming behaviors, learn healthy coping strategies, and develop a personalized plan for recovery. Therapy provides a safe and supportive space for individuals to work through difficult emotions and experiences. If you or a loved one is struggling with self-harm, consider reaching out to a licensed mental health professional for support and guidance. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, and recovery is possible.