Deliberate Self-Harm

What is deliberate self-harm?

Deliberate self-harm (also known as self-injury, nonsuicidal self-injury, or self-harm) is when you deliberately inflict physical harm on yourself, usually in secret. Some examples are cutting, burning, biting or hitting your body, pulling out hair, or scratching and picking at sores on your skin.

Deliberate self-harm is not necessarily a suicide attempt, and engaging in self-harm may not mean that someone wants to die. Most commonly, deliberate self-harm is a behavior that is used to cope with difficult or painful feelings.

Why do people self-harm?

People who deliberately harm themselves have often had tough experiences or relationships in their lives. They may have:

Deliberate self-harm can bring an immediate sense of relief, but it is only a temporary solution. It can also cause permanent damage to your body if you injure nerves. Psychologically, it may be associated with a sense of guilt, depression, low self-esteem or self-hatred along with a tendency to isolate yourself from others.

Self-harm may be used as a way to cope with experiences and strong feelings. Self-harm might:

  • Provide a way to express difficult or hidden feelings. It’s not uncommon to feel numb or empty as a result of overwhelming feelings you may be experiencing. Engaging in deliberate self-harm may provide you with a temporary sense of feeling again. It may also provide a way to express anger, sadness, grief or emotional pain.
  • Be a way of communicating to people that you need some support when you feel unable to use words or any other way to do so
  • Act as a form of self-punishment for times you feel you may have failed
  • Be a way of proving to yourself that you are not invisible
  • Provide you with a feeling of control. You might feel that self-harm is one way you can have a sense of control over your life, feelings or body, especially if you feel as if other things in your life are out of control.

Coping Without Harming Yourself

Along with support from a friend, family member or health professional, it might also be helpful to write a list of alternative strategies to self-harm for managing your emotions.

If you feel like you want to harm yourself, there are a number of things that you can try to distract yourself until the feelings become more manageable. If you can, make sure that you’re around other people and remove any sharp objects from the area.

Click on the boxes below for some ideas to release your intense energy or feelings:

See if you can extend it for another 15 minutes beyond that, continue to do it again until the feelings pass. It might be helpful to find a distraction, like playing video games or watching youtube videos, to help you get through the moment.

If you are able to verbalize and symbolize difficult feelings through words and/or artwork, this can be a healthier way of coping. You might try to use an online journal that is password protected or an anonymous app/social media platform like Vent or Tumblr.

You can give yourself little “temporary tattoos” with marker that says something positive or expresses your feelings somehow.  

It doesn’t matter what it looks like, but get the energy out of your body. If you’re fond of working out, maybe channel your energy into a hard session at the gym or with your weights. If cardio is more up your alley, try going for a run, walk in the park, or spend some time dancing or headbanging the energy out.  

This might be a good way to distract yourself and help until the anxiety and thoughts pass. If you have a smartphone, this option can be easily accessible if you’re struggling while out in public or around others.

You might do this into a pillow if you don’t want other people in the house to hear. Sometimes putting on some of your favorite music, or a playlist dedicated to times when you’re feeling triggered can help you release the tension while also providing a distraction.

Activities like yoga or meditation are often helpful, as well as using deep breathing exercises.

For more information, check out our articles:

Crying is a healthy and normal way to express your sadness or frustrations. Let it out and move through the feelings. It’s okay to cry.

When you’re feeling like self-harming, it could be helpful to talk to someone like a trusted friend, or call a helpline.

For more information, check out these articles:

Self-Harm Alternatives

If the above suggestions don’t help and you still feel the need to self harm, there are a number of things that you can do that won’t cause injury like:

  • Punching a pillow, your mattress, or a punching bag
  • Squeezing ice cubes until your fingers go numb, or put them over the place you normally self-harm
  • Eating a chili, or something really spicy
  • Taking a cold shower
  • Putting vapor rub under your nose
  • Waxing your legs, or getting them waxed
  • Painting your fingernails (and chipping the paint off when they dry)
  • Love on your pets
  • Do something physical outside
  • Listen to music

Finding Help

Although it might seem hard, it’s important that you reach out to someone who can help you find healthier, positive alternatives to alleviate the pain you feel inside. It may take time, but it’s important to remember that you can move to a happier and healthier outlook. Speaking to someone about your self-harm might be hard, so it’s important to trust the person you’re speaking with. If you’re having a hard time talking about what you’re going through, you might start with sentences such as ”Right now, I’m feeling…”; ”I think it started when…”; “I’ve been feeling this for…”; ”My sleep has been…”; “‘Lately school/work has been…”

Like any relationship, building trust with your counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist may take time and it is important you find someone you feel comfortable with. This may mean seeing several people before finding the one that you “click” with.

If there is a family member you feel comfortable telling, it might be helpful for you to have their support in finding a counselor that is right for you. It’s likely that the person you feel comfortable telling will already be worried about you and will be relieved to have the opportunity to listen and help.

If you don’t get a positive response, try to remember that it’s not because you’ve done something wrong, but because the person you have told may not know how to respond to what you have told them, or might not understand much about deliberate self-harm. Don’t give up! Either try again or speak to someone else you think you might receive a more supportive response from.

If talking with someone is too overwhelming, an alternative is to e-mail or write down what you want to say. Otherwise, a first step might be to call a 24/7 helpline, such as Lines for Life (1-800-273-8255) if you are feeling in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, or youth helpline YouthLine at 1 (877) 968-8491 or by texting teen2teen to 839863.

If you or a friend are harming yourselves, it’s also important that you take care of the injuries caused and if necessary, seek medical help through your doctor or, if it’s serious, a hospital’s emergency department.

In most situations, doctors and other health professionals must keep your information confidential. However, they are required to report information they receive if they have serious concerns about your safety.

Take Care of Yourself

It’s important to eat wellexercise and be kind to yourself. While not a solution in itself, doing all these things contribute to a higher sense of self-worth, increased stability of moods, and a general better sense of well being — making you feel more happy on the outside and the inside.


What’s something you use to resist the urge to self-harm? Share your response in the comments below! Remember to be mindful of trigger & content warnings so that we can do our best to keep everyone safe!


Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for us.

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