Understanding Self Harm

Self harm refers to the act of deliberately injuring yourself.  Sufferers use a variety of methods, but why they do it is as important as what they are doing.  Self harm is an attempt to feel better - something people do as part of trying to cope with emotions that feel out of control and overwhelming. And it is becoming very common - recent figures suggest as many as 1/4 of teenage girls and 1 in 10 boys have used self harm to try to cope with how they are feeling. Not surprisingly these rates increase  - and even double - for those who are particularly struggling with difficult emotions. 

Holding your breath

Ever tried holding your breath?  Try it now … how long can you last for?  Emotions are a bit like breathing - much as we might like to wish we could be without some of them, we need to have them, and they are part of how our brains work in a normal healthy way.  The trouble is, sometimes emotions can become very powerful - and often if we don't know what to do with them, our instinctive reactions can make them worse rather than better.  Probably the most common thing people do to try to deal with unwanted or very unpleasant emotions is to ignore them, or suppress them, hoping they will go away.  But the job of emotions is to get our attention, so ignoring them is a bit like holding your breath - they don't go away, they just build up and up and up.


Knowing how to manage your emotions and deal with them in a healthy way is a bit like breathing - it lets them out!  Research has shown that letting your emotions be expressed and processed is a really important part of staying emotionally healthy.  But how many of us know how to do this?

Feel like you are going to burst?

Ever had to blow up balloons for a party and put too much air in one?  There's only so much it can hold - and if you keep going it will eventually burst.  People struggling with self harm feel like this - there is so much emotion caught up inside of them that it feels overwhelming.  Sometimes (generally times when they feel alone and vulnerable), those emotions bubble to the surface and ambush them.  Emotions like this feel very frightening and powerful.  Its hard to know what to do with them.

People who self harm talk about this feeling of emotions building up and up.  Many also talk about how self harm feels like a release of those emotions (like letting the air out of a balloon) - and the relief they feel.  The relief is only short term though - most struggle with feelings of regret and fear about what they have done, or feel very ashamed.  One of the hardest things about self harm is that sufferers feel so very isolated, and are often afraid of admitting what they are going through.

Why harm?

The most common question people ask about self harm is why.  Its can be hard to understand why someone is hurting themselves in this way.  There are lots of reasons why people self harm but the one which has had most backing in research looks at the release of hormones called endorphins. 

Endorphins are natural chemicals released in the brain in response to injury.  They have various effects, including helping you feel less pain, feel calmer in a crisis situation, and - importantly for those who self harm - helping the levels of negative emotions to start to come down.  So one theory is that people who self harm have started to harness this effect to help them to deal with emotions   which they otherwise wouldn't know how to cope with.

Learning to breathe

Self harm is a frightening and distressing issue, and perhaps the most scary thing about it is how trapped sufferers can feel.  Very often they have tried again and again to stop.  But without learning any other way to deal with their emotions, or getting to the root of what is causing particularly distressing emotions, they are often doomed to fail.  This doesn't mean, however, that you cannot recover from self harm!  It is possible to learn how to deal with emotions in a different way, and to get on the road to recovery from self harm. 

Recovery from self harm is all about learning new ways to deal with your emotions.  And just like learning anything, it takes time.  No one can wake up one day and just 'never harm again' - and its worth people who are caring for sufferers remembering this - no matter how good the intentions, people suffering often only have self harm to help them cope with emotions.  Until they are able to get better at some alternatives, self harm may well continue in one form or another.  But with good help and support, gradually it is possible to recover - and to get to a place where self harm is no longer something you need to use to help you to cope.

Keep safe

One often neglected aspect of self harm is talking about how people harm - and how to keep safe when they do.  Its really important people who self harm are able to take care of themselves and any wounds or injuries.  Fear of the attitudes from medical staff can keep them from seeking care - so its important that they do talk to someone who can give good advice. 

Its also important to be aware that although self harm is not the same as attempting suicide (even if what people do can look a bit like they may be attempting suicide), people suffering with self harm are experiencing some really powerful emotions - and this does also put them at risk of suicidal feelings. Suicidal thoughts are more common than you might think, so if you or anyone you are supporting has ever thought of ending their life do not panic.  Do get some extra support and advice, and do always take these feelings seriously.

For more info ...

For more information about self harm, including advice and support for those suffering, or if you are caring for someone else, check out excellent organisation and friends of Mind & Soul SelfHarmUk 

There's also lots more info in 'Self harm: the road to recovery' by Kate Middleton and Sara Garvie (ISBN 978-0745953199) or 'The parents' guide to self harm' by Jane Smith (ISBN 978-074595570)  Available from all good bookshops or via selfharmUk.

For more infor for churches check out our self harm condition card on the Mental Health Access Pack

Kate Middleton, 29/08/2018
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