Understanding Self-Harm

The depressed thinking habit of self-bullying can also lead to various forms of physical self-bullying or ‘self harm’. This page explains why you might self-harming, and explores how else you might cope with the issues that are causing you to self-harm.
Where to go next: Coping with self-harming urges

An emotive issue

Self harm can be very difficult for others to understand and can be experienced as deeply shocking by family and friends. This bewilderment may lead them to react with anger or condemnation. Strong mixed feelings can also be experienced by the person self harming: bewilderment, shame, relief and triumph may all be part of the experience.It is very common for the depression habit spiral to include increasingly self-neglectful behaviour, like declining attention to eating, hygiene or physical appearance and self-destructive behaviour such as binge eating, self-starving, binge drinking or over-exercising. Sometimes this goes further and leads to active self harm. The term ‘self harm’ usually refers to deliberately self-inflicted pain. Most commonly this is done by cutting oneself, but could also include self-inflicted burns, grazes, bruising, and so on.

Self harm is not the same as suicide

Self-harm is an issue distinct from suicide – the inflicting of pain has its own purpose and is not usually intended as a suicide attempt. However, someone who self-harms may also think about or attempt suicide. It is a myth that people who self-harm are ‘just attention-seekers’ and not at risk of suicide.

Why self harm?

There are many theories about what prompts and sustains a habit of self-harming. People who self harm can themselves find it quite difficult to explain.

Some say that the physical pain seems to wipe out the mental pain for a while. An act of self harm can also come to carry an intense mixture of symbolic meanings – self-punishment, but also a mark of courage; a physical manifestation of inner pain for self and/or others to see; something to hide, but also something with which to shock and hurt others…

Self harming can often have quite an addictive quality. One theory is that, as with any other pain, the body responds to the pain induced by the self  harm by releasing a rush of its natural pain-killing ‘feel good’ hormones, endorphins. This together with the powerful symbolic meanings can lead to a very addictive habit.

Some would describe their self harming habit as a coping mechanism for dealing with the pain of experiencing powerful or difficult feelings. A way to release the build up of inner pain and tension, a way to express feelings and even a way to distract oneself.

Finding other ways to cope

Self harming might be seen as a logical end point for the very common emotional defence mechanism of denying or trying to ‘get rid of’ feelings – a strategy which goes hand in hand with cultural attitudes which define emotion as undesirable. However, all of our emotions – including painful emotions – are a natural and essential factor of human life and cannot themselves be eliminated. Overcoming a self  harming habit therefore means learning how to tolerate and manage the experience of having painful feelings rather than trying to get rid of them. Use our Self-Harm coping plan to start this process.

Make a safety plan


Many of the strategies for tackling depression listed on this site offer alternative positive habits which can slowly take the place of self harm as more constructive coping mechanisms. Most directly, learning habits of self care can help to build up resistance to the addictive habit of self harm.