Self-injury is any sort of self-harm which involves inflicting injuries or pain on one's own body. It can take many forms. The most common form of self-injury is probably cutting, usually superficially. Self injuring may also include people burning, hitting, picking, biting, scratching or piercing their skin, using harmful substances, picking at cuticles and nails till they bleed, choking or slapping oneself, drinking caustic substances, etc. Both men and women self-injure, which is sometimes referred to as self-harming or self-mutilation.

Why do people self-injure?

  • Surviving emotional pain
  • Re-enactment of earlier experiences
  • As a way of communicating about abuse
  • To regulate or provide meaning to experiences that feel overwhelming or meaningless
  • To release unbearable tension, which may arise from anxiety, grief or anger
  • To relieve feelings of guilt or shame
  • To gain control over one's life

Myths about self-injury

  • Self-injury is a failed suicide attempt
  • Self-injury is just attention seeking
  • A person who self-injures is a danger to others

If you want to help someone who self-injures
Naturally, you may feel upset, shocked or angry when someone you care about hurts themselves. Try to:

  • Offer understanding and support
  • Invite, and encourage, the person to talk about their feelings
  • Encourage the person to seek help

However, only offer as much as you can cope with, and don't try to take responsibility for stopping them from hurting themselves.

Self-Help: dealing with self-injury by developing alternatives
People self-injure for many different reasons and it may be helpful to try and identify when, how and where you self-injure. For instance, some people notice a pattern of self-injury in response to a particular event or feeling.

  1. Less damaging alternatives in causing pain are:
    • Holding an ice cube against the skin or putting the hand or arm under very cold water
    • Wearing a rubber band around the wrist and snapping the skin with it
    • Using boxing gloves and punching a punch bag
  2. Alternatives to help manage painful memories:
    • Breathing deeply and loudly
    • Reminding yourself aloud that you are safe and the feelings are just memories from the past
    • Having a special 'something' to hold or look at for comfort
  3. Alternatives to help manage feelings:
    • Distract yourself with something you enjoy
    • Talk to someone either by phone or in person
    • Engage in some planned work
    • Write your feelings down, draw or paint
  4. Soothing, tension-releasing and comforting alternatives:
    • Goal-orientated tasks and activities such as hammering, running, swimming, walking, throwing objects or pounding pillows or a mattress can be useful
  5. Alternative ways to feel alive and in your body:
    • Stroke your arm or leg with your hand, focusing on the sensation when your skin touches your skin
    • Stamping your feet until you feel them
    • Drinking a cup of tea or ice water and focusing on the temperature changes in your mouth and stomach
  6. Alternatives to seeing marks or blood on your skin:
    • Use a marker or face paints to draw marks on the body where you would have hurt yourself
    • Drawing or painting on paper

How else can you help yourself?
Talking to other people is important and can be a profound healing step. Talking about self-injury can be painful and uncomfortable. However, the following may help:

  • Talking to someone you like and trust who you believe will be sensitive
  • Plan what you might say ahead of time, perhaps even writing it down

For people who self-injure the primary goal is to stop. Often the person will need to talk to a therapist or counsellor and work through their experiences. Sometimes a person will require counselling at the same time as (s)he is seeking alternatives to self-injury.

The National University of Ireland, Galway Student Counselling Service wishes to thank the Counselling Service of The University of Limerick for granting permission to reproduce this fact sheet.