Self Injury

Self Injury


Many people, when faced with distressing or stressful experiences, may fail to take care of themselves as they would normally expect to do.  They may not eat properly, may smoke or drink too much, drive too fast, spend too much money, make themselves ill through overwork or worry, or practise random unsafe sex.  These failures of self-care are ways people use to distract themselves from painful feelings, to numb them, to avoid facing them.
For some people, the depth and intensity of the pain is such that these ways of coping do not seem to be enough, and they may find that more direct self-injury feels like the only way to cope with their feelings. 

Self-injury is a term used to cover a wide range of behaviours.
The most common form of self-injury is scratching or cutting the skin, usually the arms or legs, but other parts of the body too. Others can be burning or scalding yourself, picking at the skin, pulling your hair out or hitting yourself against things.  These behaviours, which involve causing pain or harm to your own body, are ways of trying to cope with emotional pain.  

Reasons why people self-injure

There are always powerful reasons as to why an individual injures him/her self, and the reasons may be complicated, and not entirely clear to them.  These are some of the reasons which might make some sense to you:

  • It is a way of coping with, and surviving emotional pain. It can put the pain ‘outside’, where it feels easier to cope with.
  • It is often linked with depression, low self esteem and a poor physical self image.
  • Some people feel that it helps to release unbearable tension, perhaps arising from anger, guilt, or anxiety.
  • It is a way of punishing the self, or relieving feelings of shame and guilt
  • It may be a ‘cry for help’, a tangible and desperate way of showing that s/he is in pain and is suffering.
  • It may be a way of taking control of at least something in that person’s life. 
  • It can be a way of restoring a feeling of reality, of making the self seem real or ‘connected’.
  • It may be due to abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional, or other painful life experiences.
 Common Misunderstandings about self-injury
  • It is not a failed suicide attempt. For most people who self-harm, their actions are not about ending life, but trying to cope with it on a daily basis.
  • It is not seeking attention just for the sake of it; sometimes it is that person’s  desperate attempt to show that something is really wrong. Many people go to great lengths to hide their self-injury.
  • Just because a person self-injures, this does not inevitably make them a danger to others. The hurt and anger are being directed at the self, and most would be distressed at the idea of hurting others.
  • It is not a sign of severe mental illness, but in fact a sign of someone trying to cope with pain as best s/he can.
Some Practical Things to Do
  • Consider your lifestyle: how could you take better care of yourself generally.  Are you eating properly?  Are you getting enough sleep?  Could you drink less?  Could you plan your days so that you have time to relax , as well as do all the other things that need to be done?
  • If you think you are likely to self-injure, avoid using alcohol or other drugs which may make you harm yourself more than you intended.
  • Make sure that any equipment you use is clean; don’t use things which others have used, or which are dirty, as this could make you more liable to infection.
  • Make up a first aid kit for yourself and have it ready, so that you can care for any wounds properly.
  • After you have self-injured, you may feel upset. So look after yourself by keeping warm, having a warm drink, or something to eat, and, if it is possible, talk to someone who will be there for you. 
  • Remember that other people will want to help, but they may find what you are doing very upsetting.  Choose thoughtfully who to tell, and be mindful of their possible feelings and reactions about what you tell them.
Possible Ways to Help Yourself
Try to begin to make sense of what you are doing by considering when it began and what was happening then; explore how self-injuring has helped you to survive, both in the past and now. Think about how you feel before and after you have self-injured.

Begin to keep a personal diary - write down feelings and thoughts, stick in photos, draw pictures or diagrams, write lists,  - there are no rules about how you have to use the space.

Retrace the steps which led to a recent incident of self-injury – events, thoughts, and feelings. Is the urge to self-injure a signal of buried needs, feelings, thoughts, memories?  Keeping a diary can be helpful in seeing patterns in when and why you self-injure.

Think about what your self-injurious behaviour represents to you - is it a response to emotional pain or worry about what is happening in your life? Could you think of other ways to help that?

Your self-injuring has enabled you to cope with difficult circumstances.  But perhaps now is the time to see if you can come up with other coping strategies which are less harmful to you.  Look for small steps that you could take towards possible alternative behaviours.
For example,

  • cutting less deeply or less often;
  • taking better care of the injury;
  • avoiding drinking too much if that is when self-injuring most often happens;
  • writing the feelings down instead;
  • tearing up bits of paper and making a collage;
  • painting;
  • phoning a friend; 
  • to get physical sensation, flick elastic bands on your wrist, hold ice cubes in your hand until they melt.

Supporting Someone who Self-injures

It is not easy supporting someone who self-injures.  It can be very upsetting and draining, especially when whatever you try to say or do doesn’t seem to help very much.  You may feel angry with them, frightened or helpless.  You cannot force someone to stop this behaviour.  Remember that they are using it to cope with their own difficulties.

Having someone who will listen sympathetically to them can be very helpful.  It might help to suggest that you both do something together, like going into town, to the gym, or having a cup of coffee or preparing a meal together.

But it is important to remember that you are not responsible for someone else’s actions.  Think of your own needs too, and do not offer more support than you can sustain.  You do still have your own life to live.

Sources of Help

The Accident and Emergency Dept, Royal Worcester Infirmary, Charles Hastings Way, Newtown Road, Worcester.
Your GP
The British Red Cross 0844 871 1111. They have a skin camoulflage service, but you do need to be referred by your GP or a consultant.
Samaritans 08457 909090 - a 24hr line
Mind website on self-harming:

Further Help

If you would like to talk about your self-injuring you can contact the Student Counselling Service. In one-to-one counselling you can explore and learn to understand the underlying issues in a safe, confidential environment.  You can begin to learn to manage your feelings differently and develop different coping strategies.

If you are supporting someone who self -injures and would like to talk about its impact on you, you can also contact the Student Counselling Service.

01905 855107/ 855417