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Self harm and self-injury

What is self-harm and self-injury?

Some people harm themselves to relieve distress. This can take many forms including cutting, burning, persistent scratching or substance misuse. Physical pain is often easier to cope with than emotional pain. Self-harm can make people feel relieved and calm for a while. It is not an attempt to die. It is a way of coping with intense feelings. There are things you can do to minimise harm, and although it may feel impossible, if someone wants to stop self-harming there are some things that can help them work towards this.

Coping with self-harm and self-injury

You may already have your own ways of coping with self-harm and self-injury. The list below offers some ideas:

  • Avoid drugs and/or alcohol if you think you are likely to self-harm, so you don’t accidentally wound yourself more seriously than you intended.
  • Prevent infection by using something clean when you cut. Never share what you use to self-injure. Try to avoid areas where there are major veins and arteries close to the surface. Make sure your tetanus jabs are up to date.
  • Put burns under cold water for 20/30 minutes. Burns and scalds can be more severe than you think – the pain can be far worse later. Cling film, loosely covering the burn, can act as a temporary dressing. You can buy creams and sprays for burns from your chemist.
  • Be prepared. Have dressings and antiseptics ready so you can care for your injuries. You can learn more about looking after wounds, cuts, burns and so on from a first aid book, someone you trust who knows about first aid or perhaps the nurse in your doctor’s practice.
  • Call an ambulance if blood is spurting from a wound. Wrap the injury in a clean towel or tea towel and try and stay calm. Clean any cuts with gauze swabs, not cotton wool. Cover with a dry, non-adhesive dressing. It can be useful to keep antiseptic creams, sprays etc. handy. Paper stitches can be used to close superficial wounds.
  • If any of your cuts are gaping and deep you will need medical attention. Try to keep the injured part raised and apply pressure until you get to hospital, to reduce the bleeding.
  • You should also seek medical attention for burns larger than a fifty pence piece, or that have penetrated deep into the skin.
  • If cuts or burns become infected it is important to get medical treatment or you may become seriously ill.
  • Shock can occur if you lose a lot of blood (spurting or running continuously) or if you have severe or large burns. Call an ambulance if this happens.
  • Poisoning. If you drink bleach or any other corrosive liquid you can be in danger of poisoning. You must get medical advice or attention immediately.
  • Overdoses. If you think you may have taken too many drugs (prescribed or illegal) get medical help quickly, particularly with drugs such as paracetamol.

Remember that you are not alone. Many people self-harm as a way of coping. Although this can be a very difficult thing to understand, it is important to recognise that self-harm is about coping. It is not about attention seeking and it is not attempted suicide.

Managing your self-harm

If you want to try and stop, or reduce, the amount you hurt yourself there are some things which you may find helpful. These are:

  • Talking: If you are able to identify your feelings early, it can be helpful talking these through with someone that you trust. This may be support worker, friend, family member or our helpline. What is important is that you speak to someone who will listen to you, hear you and accept you.
  • Be creative: Many survivors find that expressing their feelings through some form of creative expression helps. Often it’s about finding the right kind of creativity for you. Some ideas are writing, painting, drawing, poetry or using clay/plasticine. Some survivors like to share the things they have made or written with someone who they trust and who is supportive.
  • Use positive affirmations: taking a bit of time each day to go over some positive affirmations can be a good way of nurturing and comforting yourself. You may want to write these yourself or you may want to find some pre-written that you can identify with.
  • Timer method: In times where you feel overwhelmed, the timer method can be helpful. Some survivors prefer to start at 1 minute but the choice is yours, others find that 5 minutes is a better strategy for them. You may wish to use an actual timer. Tell yourself that you will not hurt yourself in the next 1 (or whatever amount you choose) minutes. Once this is over, should you still feel overwhelmed you can repeat the process. Should you feel that your anxiety lessens you may want to increase the amount of time or move on to another form of distraction.
  • Be physical: exercise can be a great way of relieving a lot of the emotions you are feeling. Exercise will release any built up tension that you have. Often it’s about finding the right type of exercise for you. Using a punch bag, swimming, jogging, dancing are just a few of the things you may wish to try.
  • Scream: finding a safe space to scream as loud, or as much, as you want to can be a good way of releasing any tension you have.
  • Pillows: Stacking up all the pillows and/or cushions that you have in your home and punching them can be another good release. This is very safe – you are not hurting anyone, including yourself.
  • Taking care of you: Try to take care of yourself as much as possible. You deserve it. What people do to take care of themselves is a very individual thing. You may want to have a bath, relax to some soothing music or go on a country walk.
  • Relaxation: Just breathe. If you are able to focus on your breathing, by listening to it and paying attention to the rhythm this will send calming messages to your brain. Breathing deeply and relaxing circulates more oxygen around your body which reduces levels of anxiety.

If you would like to see some alternative strategies you can find these listed on either our information about Flashbacks or Panic Attacks pages.

What you tell us remains confidential within our team and we will not pass on information to anyone else unless you give us written consent. However, there are certain circumstances where we are obligated by law to share information, e.g. a disclosure about a child, young person or vulnerable adult who is being harmed or who is at risk of harm. Should we need to share any information a support worker will fully discuss this with you first and support you throughout the reporting procedures. Full details about our confidentiality and child protection policies are available from the Centre.