Tag Archives: attention seeking

FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Getting Help (Part 1)

There are a lot of misconceptions and stigma around self-harming – only girls do it, it’s attention-seeking behaviour, the person is unstable or crazy. 


For this and other reasons self-harmers are known to be secretive and unlikely to ask for help or be willing to talk about their problem.

Why don’t you ask for help?

There are a variety of reasons why young people who self-harm don’t ask for help:

  • Self-harming is their only coping mechanism, the only thing that keeps them alive and the thought of having it taken away is terrifying.
  • Many believe that they have things under control and can sort things out on their own.
  • The fear of being labelled, ostracized or not taken seriously.
  • Not having anyone to talk to, who would understand and not judge them.
  • Female self-harmers are particularly fearful of being dismissed as attention seeking or “silly”.
  • Male self-harmers often feel that their injuries are not serious enough to warrant asking for help.


How to help yourself

1. Find someone to confide in

Finding someone to confide in is a big and, often, daunting step. It will however be a big relief to finally share with someone what you have been going through.

The decision of who to tell may be difficult. What is most important is that whoever you choose is trustworthy and you feel comfortable with them. The person you decide to confide in does not necessarily have to be someone close to you, such as a family member or friend. Sometimes it is easier to reveal your secret to someone who you know will accept and support you, but who is not from your “inner circle” and so can be objective about the situation, for example: a counsellor, a teacher, the family GP.

The following tips may help you with opening up about your self-harming behaviour:

Give the person you confide in a little time to process what you have told them

Revealing a secret such as self-harming to someone can result in a variety of reactions. You may need to give the person some time to think about what you have told (and possibly shown) them. It would also be helpful to explain to them why you have decided to confide in them – be it to relieve yourself of the burden of having to keep your self-harming a secret or because you would like their advice and help. The person’s initial reaction may not be a positive one, it is important to remember that reactions such as anger and shock have to do with their concern for you.

Focus on the feelings and situations that cause you to self-harm

In order to help the person you are confiding in better understand why you self-harm, focus on and explain the feelings and / or situations which act as triggers for you; rather than discussing the details of how you self-harm.

Communicate in a way that is comfortable for you

If the thought of having a face-to-face conversation is too intimidating, consider writing your chosen confidant a letter or e-mail as a way of getting things started – it is however important to eventually follow this up with an actual face-to-face meeting. Do not allow yourself to be pressured into discussing or sharing things you are not ready to talk about, this includes showing the person your injuries or answering questions you feel uncomfortable with.

2. Figure out why you self-harm

Identify your triggers

Self-harm is often a response to and a way of dealing with emotional pain – try to start identifying the feelings that make you want to hurt yourself. Consider keeping a diary for a few weeks and writing down the emotions you are experiencing when you get the urge to self-harm, these may include: anger, shame, guilt, loneliness, sadness, emptiness etc. By becoming more self-aware of your internal, emotional state and your triggers, you can learn to better deal with these negative feelings and develop healthier alternatives for expressing your emotions.

Become emotionally self-aware

Emotional self-awareness refers to knowing or being able to identify what you are feeling and why you are feeling it. It involves the ability to identify and express what you are feeling and understand the link between your feelings and actions.

The idea of consciously paying attention to your emotions, rather than hiding from them through self-harming, may be a frightening prospect. There is the fear that you may become overwhelmed by them or that they may never leave. It is during times like this you need to remind yourself that emotions do not last forever, like waves on a beach, they come and go but only if you allow them to. By making the conscious effort not to obsess and stew over things, emotions will fade and be replaced by new ones, rather than becoming intrusive and unpleasant.

By learning to identify what your emotional triggers are, you can start to investigate the role self-harming plays in your life and what healthier alternatives you can make use of to meet those needs and in turn reduce your urge to self-injure.

3. Develop alternative coping mechanisms

Self-harming is a coping mechanism for dealing with overwhelming emotions or situations. Thus, if you want to stop self-harming, you need to develop healthier, alternative coping mechanisms. Below are some alternatives to consider instead of self-harming:

If you self-harm to soothe and calm yourself

The following alternatives all include a calming, sensory aspect to them – they may sound overly simple but each has proven soothing qualities.

  • listen to calming music
  • wrap yourself up in a warm, soft blanket
  • take a warm bath or shower
  • pet, cuddle or play with a dog or cat
  • massage your hands, feet and neck

If you self-harm to express emotional pain or intense emotions

  • write down what you are feeling in a journal – journaling can be very cathartic
  • paint or draw your emotions – you could even just scribble or doodle on a piece of paper
  • compose a song or poem about what you are feeling – like journaling, this too can be very therapeutic
  • listen to music that expresses your emotions – we all have those songs that capture exactly how we are feeling

If you self-harm to vent or release anger and tension

  • exercise – vigorous running, dancing, boxing helps to release pent up energy and tension
  • get yourself a stress ball or some play dough to squish and squeeze
  • rip something up – paper, a magazine (preferably something that you won’t regret destroying)
  • make some noise – scream into a pillow, drum on a desk, play an instrument

If you self-harm out of feeling disconnected or numb

  • take a cold shower
  • hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or leg
  • phone a friend – you don’t need to talk about what is going on



Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm.  [Accessed on: 19 May 2015].




FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Understanding Self-Harm (Part 2)

For many young people what starts off as a once-off form of stress relief, turns into a vicious cycle of self-injury that is hard to break.


Myths about self-harm

1.  People who self-harm are either attention seeking or are part of a cult

The truth of the matter is that the majority of self-harm is done in secret over an extended period of time, and it is often very difficult for the person to talk about and admit to why they do it. Self-harmers seldom ever seek medical help or support.

Another common misconception regarding self-harm revolves around it being a group activity or part of the “goth” sub-culture. There is however no formal or reliable evidence to support either of these assertions.

2. Self-harm leads to suicide

Perhaps what frightens family and friends most about self-harming is the incorrect belief that it will lead to suicide. In fact the very opposite is true in that when young people self-harm they are not trying to kill themselves, but instead are trying to cope with their overwhelming emotions and circumstances. For many self-harm is a means of staying alive.

It is however important to take self-harming seriously and to seek help – it has been found that in the long term, those who self-harm are at higher risk of attempting suicide.


Warning signs

It can be difficult to detect whether or not someone is self-harming; clothing can hide physical wounds and a smile, and a dismissive “I’m fine” can mask a world of inner pain. There are however clues you can look out for if you are worried about someone:

  • repetitive, unexplained scars and / or wounds – these can be from cuts, burns, scratching or bruises and are usually found on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
  • sharp objects or things used for cutting – these can include: razor blades, the blade from a pencil sharpener, knives, needles, safety pins, shards of glass, mettle bottle caps, bobby pins etc.
  • lighters, matches, candles – used for burning and scalding
  • frequent blood stains on clothing, bedding or towels
  • Covering up i.e. wearing long sleeved tops and pants, regardless of how hot it is, refusal to partake in activities that will require them to wear shorts, a swimming costume etc.
  • frequent “accidents” or clumsiness – this is often used as an excuse for injuries
  • Wanting to be alone for extended periods of time – locking themselves in their bedroom or the bathroom
  • Irritability, secretive behaviour, withdrawn, looking “washed out”, tired and having no energy


How does self-harming start and is it addictive?

For some it starts off by accident, they accidently injure themselves and thereafter start deliberately harming themselves in order to experience the same relief the initial injury gave them.

For many it begins as a “once-off” thing; they harm themselves once believing that they won’t do it again. But the relief the physical pain provided them is short lived and the problems they are trying to cope with still exist and the emotional distress and pain soon returns resulting in them harming themselves again, and so the cycle continues.

Self-harming is habit-forming. When the body is injured, hurt or under extreme stress (take running a marathon for example) a chemical or endorphins called endogenous opioids are released providing a form of natural pain relief that can be experienced as being pleasurable; however it can also increase a person’s pain threshold, thus resulting in them being able to tolerate increased amounts of pain. It is important to understand that self-harming is  not just about “chasing” the physical pleasure and / or relief from self-inflicting physical pain; more often it is about coping or finding a way to distract themselves from what they are feeling or experiencing emotionally, it is this physical diversion from the emotional pain that becomes habit-forming.



There is a final part to the cycle: the guilt, shame and regret many self-harmers experience about what they do. It is because of these “by-product” emotions that most do not want to talk about what they do and become increasingly secretive and withdrawn.



Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Science Nordic. (2012). Self-harm Is Not Only For Troubled Teens. Retrieved from: http://sciencenordic.com/self-harm-not-only-troubled-teens [Accessed on: 11 May 2015].

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm [Accessed on: 11 May 2015].

FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Understanding Self-Harm (Part 1)

Self-harm is a common problem and secret many people struggle with on a daily basis. It is often treated as a “taboo” subject and as a result is largely misunderstood and misrepresented. 


The purpose of this Focus On series is to help you better understand what self-harming is, why it happens, how to cope with it, and how to break its destructive cycle.

What is self-harm?

It may sound contradictory and is often difficult for non-self-harmers to understand, but in most cases self-harm is used as a way to deal with intense emotional pain and distress. The use of physical pain helps the person distract themselves from the emotional pain they are experiencing. People who self-harm often speak of the sense of release it brings them, that it makes them feel alive during times when they are so emotionally numb, nothing else can get through to them.

Self-harmers are often accused of being attention seeking and manipulative. However in the majority of cases those who self-harm tend to do so secretively, doing all they can to hide their scars and bruises. This in turn creates an additional emotional burden in that it slowly starts affecting all aspects of their lives: what they can wear, what kind of activities and sports they can partake in, relationships with both friends and family. The “solution” which is meant to bring relief soon creates new problems and stress and so an addictive behaviour pattern can develop.

The term “self-harm” is just one name for the habitual and deliberate infliction of pain as a form of emotional and psychological release; it is also referred to as: self-inflicted violence, self-mutilation and self-abuse. Regardless of the label used the most common forms of harm or injury used include:

  • cutting
  • severe scratching of skin
  • burning
  • scalding
  • banging or hitting your body
  • hair pulling
  • intentionally picking at wounds and preventing them from healing
  • sticking objects into or through the skin
  • swallowing poisonous substances or objects

Self-harm also includes less deliberate or conscious forms of hurt or danger such as: reckless driving, binge drinking, drug abuse, and unsafe sexual practices.


Who self-harms?

Self-harming is a common problem among 11 – 25 year olds, with the average age of onset being 12. There is no “typical self-harmer”, girls are 4 times more likely than boys to self-harm – meaning that boys and young men are not immune to it, but are more likely to hit or bruise themselves so people often dismiss the signs as being the result of an accident or fight.

Certain groups have been identified as being more vulnerable to self-harm:

  • children & young people with learning disabilities
  • children & young people living in residential settings i.e. prison, shelters, hostels and boarding school
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender young people


Why do people self-harm?

Self-harm is used as a coping mechanism by young people who are unable to express their feelings, guilt, sadness, anger, emptiness or rage in more healthy ways. For these young people self-harm helps them to:

  • express their feelings, which they often cannot put into words
  • give them a sense of control over their lives
  • release pent up pain and tension
  • relieve guilt and punish themselves
  • feel alive, feel something, rather than feeling emotionally numb and disconnected
  • distract them from difficult life circumstances or overwhelming emotions

Precipitating issues which are often linked to self-harming include:

  • poor family and / or parental relationships
  • bullying
  • stress and worry – often school related
  • feeling isolated
  • problems related to sexuality
  • divorce
  • self-harm or suicide of a close friend or relative
  • problems related to race, culture or religion
  • low self-esteem
  • abuse: physical, sexual or emotional (both past and / or current)
  • unwanted pregnancy
  • bereavement
  • feeling of being rejected socially or within the family



Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm. [Accessed on: 05 May 2015].