Coping with Self-Harm


According to Merriam Webster, self-harm is “the act of purposely hurting oneself (as by cutting or burning the skin) as an emotional coping mechanism.” Although not suicidal in nature, self-harm is a way to cope with life stressors and unwanted painful emotions. It works as a distraction and helps instill a sense of calm for a brief period of time. The tendency of self-harm tends to create an indefinite loop of guilt and negative emotions of not being good enough which pushes people into hurting themselves more and more to cope with these unpleasant feelings.

Below are some astonishing self-injury statistics, the survey was carried across more than 40 countries found that:

  • About 17% of all people will self-harm during their lifetime.
  • 90 percent of people who engage in self-harm begin during their teen or pre-adolescent years. The average age of the first incident of self-harm is 13.
  • Each year, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self-harm.
  • 45% of people use cutting as their method of self-injury.
  • About 50% of people seek help for their self-harm but only from friends instead of professionals.

Forms of Self-Harm

Self-harm is usually a secretive or a private act performed in a controlled environment leading to multiple scars on the skin surface. Different forms of self-harm include:

  • Burning oneself with cigarettes, match sticks, coil, etc. 
  • Scraping or cutting the skin with blade, pin or any other sharp/pointy object
  • Poking or hitting yourself with objects.
  • Banging your head against the wall or other hard objects 
  • Inserting poisonous or harmful substances directly in the skin or in the body through the mouth.
  • Pulling and breaking of hair 

Causes of Self-Harm

The cause of this behavior lies in the early childhood traumatic incidents of verbal, sexual, or physical abuse. It may also be used as a way to get a grip on a sudden unsettling event at home, with close relationships, at school or a mental health concern including anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, to name a few. Although most commonly seen in teenagers and young adults, it affects both genders equally. 

Experiencing heightened anxiety is one of the most common factors that can lead to self-harm. When emotional pain becomes too overwhelming to bear, replacing it with physically inflicted pain seems to be the only sense of relief. At times when anxiety goes out of hand and the individual’s emotions start to spiral out of control, inflicting self-harm can come as an unhealthy coping mechanism to feel in charge of what happens to their body. 

Along with the above, self-harm can also be an attention-seeking behavior. Not everyone who self harms is looking for attention but it can be a cry for help at times. Although self-harm caters to our instant overwhelming feeling of anger, pain, anxiety, or frustration. Unattended self-harm can be dangerous. It can lead to disabilities, disorders, infections, and even death.  

Signs and symptoms of Self-Harm

Self-harm is not considered a faulty behavior by the victims since engaging in it so frequently normalizes the act. However, identifying the signs and symptoms is important:

  • Unexplained injury scars or marks like that of cut, scratches, burn on the body, especially on the wrist, arms, and legs
  • Recurring incidents of unexplained injury 
  • Keeping sharp or harmful objects with them. 
  • Long or ill-fitted sleeved clothes and pants even in summers to hide the marks.
  • Impulsive, irritable, or unstable display of behavior or emotions.
  • Talking about being not good enough, hopeless, unworthy, or isolating themselves more than usual.
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Excessive substance abuse

Coping with Self-Harm

Although starting with small cuts, self-harm is a progressive act that can soon become a compulsion leading to self-harm addiction. However, it is important to remember that hurting oneself won’t help with the underlying issue. Self-Harm only worsens the sense of guilt, shame, frustration, anger, or loneliness. To be able to cope with Self-harm, it is important to understand the triggers and seeking help:

Talk it out

Confiding in someone you trust with your feelings can give you a sense of relief. Please, do set the right expectations though – whether you are looking for a solution to your self harming behavior or you just want to be heard. This will make the process easy for both of you. You can always talk to Wysa!

Identify the Self-Harm triggers

This is a very crucial step towards recovery. Identifying the unmanageable emotions that lead to self-harming behaviors can help you look for alternatives. Reflecting and naming the emotions that you are going through can be the first step. Here, it is important to not fight back your emotions, instead, let them be. Emotions are natural human responses and will pass if you give them time.

The 5-4-3-2-1 techniques for grounding

Begin by taking 2 to 3 deep breaths to feel centered. Scan the room and make a note of the things you see around you and name out loud 5 things that you can see. 4 things that you can feel. 3 things that you can hear. 2 things that you can smell and 1 thing that you can touch. Doing so can help you bring your awareness back to the here and now.

Breaking the pattern:

Self-harm continues to be a repetitive behavior because of its association with a particular feeling one gets out of it. Hence breaking this loop by distracting yourself with something that can give you the same feeling is important. A few things that might help distract are, holding an ice cube in our hand till it melts, throwing the ice cube at a wall and watching it shatter, engaging in cleaning your room or washing utensils. Doing exhausting household chores like this could be both distracting as well as relaxing.  

Write it out

The lack of healthy self-expression can lead to self-harming behaviors. Penning down your thoughts and overwhelming feelings can provide a sense of relief and help give structure to your thoughts. Talking out loud to yourself or to an object around can also be used as a substitute for writing. Do not restrict yourself from yelling or screaming if needed. It will help facilitate healthy self-expression. You can also use the ‘journal’ feature on Wysa to keep a tab on your thoughts.

Seek professional help

It is always wise to speak to a therapist who can help you identify the root cause of your self harming behavior, provide you with a safe and non-judgemental environment and help you come up with healthier coping strategies.

Self-harm awareness

Self-harm is a real-life issue that can happen to anyone. Being well versed with the signs, symptoms and how to respond when a loved one is suffering can be of great help. Being nonjudgmental is the key here. Remember the self-harming individual is already in distress and it takes a lot of courage to open up about these unpleasant emotions. Our little openness and support can really make a difference in their lives. 

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