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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].