Updated: July 23, 2022

Self-harm is a complex coping mechanism often driven by emotional distress. It involves deliberately injuring oneself as a way to temporarily alleviate pain or express internal struggles.

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What Is Self-harm?

Self-harm is an intricate and deeply distressing behaviour characterised by the intentional act of inflicting harm upon oneself. It commonly manifests as cutting, burning, hitting, or other forms of self-inflicted injury. It’s crucial to recognise that self-harm is not typically a suicidal gesture; rather, it’s often a way for individuals to manage overwhelming emotional pain or distress that they struggle to express through words alone. The act of self-harm can provide a temporary sense of relief or release, offering a momentary escape from emotional turmoil.


Those engaged in self-harm often experience complex emotional struggles, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, or feelings of emptiness. While self-harm may offer momentary relief, it is not a healthy or sustainable way to cope with these challenges. It’s essential for individuals who engage in self-harm to seek professional help and support to address the underlying issues driving this behaviour. Friends, family, and mental health professionals can play a vital role in helping individuals find healthier ways to manage their emotions and provide the necessary tools for lasting recovery.

What Are The Symptoms?

Avoiding Activities

Avoiding activities that require revealing parts of the body, such as swimming or changing clothes in front of others.

Changes in Eating and Sleeping Habits

Disrupted sleep patterns, changes in eating habits, and other signs of distress.

Difficulty Expressing Emotions

Finding it hard to communicate or express emotions verbally and using self-harm as an outlet.

Emotional Instability

Displaying sudden mood swings, intense anger, irritability, sadness, or emotional turmoil.

Finding Sharp Objects

Having an unusual collection of sharp objects, like razors or needles, in personal belongings.

Isolation and Secrecy

Withdrawing from social interactions, isolating oneself, and becoming secretive about one’s activities.

Low Self-Esteem

Struggling with low self-esteem, self-worth issues, and feelings of guilt or shame.

Relationship Issues

Strained relationships with family and friends due to the secrecy and emotional struggles associated with self-harm.

Unexplained Injuries

Frequent occurrence of cuts, burns, bruises, or other types of injuries that cannot be easily explained by accidents.

Wearing Covering Clothing

Wearing long sleeves and pants even in warm weather to conceal marks or scars on the body.

What Causes Self-harm?

Self-harm is a complex behaviour that can arise from a combination of factors, including psychological, emotional, and environmental influences. While the causes can vary from person to person, some common factors that may contribute to self-harm include:

Emotional Distress: Many individuals who engage in self-harm use it as a way to cope with intense emotional pain, stress, anxiety, depression, or feelings of emptiness. It becomes a temporary outlet for these overwhelming emotions.

Difficulty Expressing Emotions: Some people find it challenging to express their emotions verbally or to others, leading them to turn to self-harm as a way to externalise their internal struggles.

Trauma: Individuals who have experienced traumatic events, such as physical or sexual abuse, may turn to self-harm as a way to cope with the lingering emotional effects of the trauma.

Low Self-Esteem: People with low self-esteem or a negative self-image may use self-harm as a way to punish themselves for perceived inadequacies or mistakes.

Lack of Coping Skills: A lack of healthy coping mechanisms or problem-solving skills can lead individuals to resort to self-harm as a way to manage distressing situations.

Peer Influence: In some cases, peer pressure or influence from friends who also engage in self-harm can contribute to the behaviour.

Family Dynamics: Dysfunctional family environments, strained relationships, or a lack of emotional support can contribute to the development of self-harm as a coping strategy.

Mental Health Conditions: Conditions such as borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and certain mood disorders can increase the risk of self-harm as a symptom or coping mechanism.

Societal and Cultural Factors: Societal pressures, unrealistic beauty standards, and cultural influences can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy or contribute to emotional distress.

Sensation Seeking: Some individuals may engage in self-harm to experience physical sensations that provide temporary relief from emotional pain or numbness.

How Phinity Therapy Can Help

Our therapists work with individuals who engage in self-harm, with empathy, understanding, and a focus on helping the individual address the underlying issues driving the behaviour. Here are a few ways we might work with someone struggling with self-harm, depending on individual needs:

Building Trust and Rapport: Establishing a trusting and non-judgmental therapeutic relationship is crucial. We create a safe space where individuals feel comfortable discussing their emotions and experiences.

Assessment and Understanding: Our therapists will conduct a thorough psychological assessment to understand the history, triggers, emotions, and reasons behind self-harming behaviour. This assessment helps identify any coexisting mental health issues that may need to be addressed.

Coping Strategies: We will teach healthy coping mechanisms to manage emotional distress. This could involve mindfulness techniques, deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and identifying alternative outlets for emotions.

Emotional Regulation: Helping individuals develop skills to regulate emotions is essential. This might involve teaching you how to identify and label your emotions, tolerate distress, and manage intense feelings in healthier ways.

Exploring Triggers: Our therapists will work with you to identify the specific triggers that lead to self-harm. Understanding these triggers allows for the development of strategies to manage and navigate them effectively.

Addressing Underlying Issues: Therapy will focus on addressing the root causes of self-harm, such as trauma, low self-esteem, or unresolved emotions. Through various therapeutic techniques (like cognitive-behavioural therapy or dialectical behaviour therapy), our therapists help individuals process these issues and develop healthier perspectives.

Safety Planning: Developing a safety plan is essential to manage urges and prevent harm. This plan outlines steps to take when feeling overwhelmed, including contacting a support person, engaging in a calming activity, or seeking professional help.

Family and Social Support: Involving family or support networks can provide a more comprehensive approach to therapy. We might work with the individual’s loved ones to enhance understanding and provide a supportive environment.

Gradual Change: We will work with the individual to gradually reduce self-harm behaviours, understanding that this process takes time. Setting realistic goals and celebrating progress is crucial.

Relapse Prevention: Learning to identify early warning signs and developing strategies to prevent relapse is an integral part of therapy. Our therapists equip individuals with tools to manage potential setbacks.

Collaborative Approach: Therapy involves collaboration between the therapist and the individual. Your input, goals, and preferences are taken into account to tailor the treatment approach.

Remember that therapy is a personalised journey, and the approach used may vary based on your individual unique needs, circumstances, and preferences. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, seeking help from a qualified mental health professional is highly recommended.

What Causes Self-harm?How Phinity Therapy Can Help


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