• Brock Vaughan, MA

WHAT IS...Self-Harm?

March 1st is Self-Injury Awareness Day (SIAD). SIAD is a grassroots annual global awareness campaign encouraging people to open up, talk, and publicly share their experiences about the taboo topic of self-harm.


What is self-harm? Self-harm is the deliberate act to hurt yourself. Regardless of how one engages in self-injurious behaviour, it involves direct injury to one’s body in order to cause the physical sensation of pain.


Among the most common forms of self-harm include skin cutting, scratching, burning, bruising, hair pulling, head banging, and hitting. Contrary to popular belief, self-harm is distinct from and not always linked to suicidal ideation. Additionally, self-harm is not merely attention-seeking behaviour and should not be characterized as such.


Self-harm is often a physical manifestation of psychological pain. However, it is important to note that self-harm is unique to everyone. Some people feel so overwhelmed by their emotions that they use self-harm as a learned coping strategy to manage their psychological distress.

For them, self-harm serves as a distraction and an escape from their intense, emotional mental pain. For others, participating in acts of self-harm allows them to feel—to feel something other than the excruciating numbness or lack of feeling they may experience. Oftentimes the goal of self-injury is an attempt to soothe overpowering thoughts and emotions.

In the short term, self-harm can provide temporary relief from distressing psychic pain, as one’s mental anguish is transformed into physical discomfort. In fact, many people who self-harm report that they soon feel relief afterwards. Many are comforted by the fact that their emotional pain now has a tangible expression that they can see (e.g., a scratch mark on their arm or leg). Their emotional pain can be concretely visualized and there is a balancing match between their thoughts and feelings of pain. Some people who participate in self-harm feel a greater sense of control and power over their emotional pain. Additionally, self-harm can also be an outlet to express pain when there are no words to describe it, and the resultant physical injuries can be consciously or subconsciously used to communicate to others the severity of just how much psychological pain one is in (i.e., can sometimes be a cry for help). Self-harm can also be used by some individuals as a form of self-punishment to cope with feelings of emptiness, boredom, confusion, anxiety, depressed mood, anger, guilt, and shame.


In the long term, self-injurious behaviour becomes more than just a temporary coping strategy. Beyond the physical wounds and scars left behind, self-harm can seriously impact one’s mental and physical health. Self-harm can become addictive when used as a habitual coping strategy. If you or a loved one is currently experiencing the myriad biopsychosocial ramifications of self-injury, please be nonjudgmental and compassionate to yourself and others.


Healthier alternatives to self-harm include:

  • Rub an ice cube on your skin

  • Snap a rubber band on your wrist

  • Keep your eyes open until you feel a burning sensation

  • Step into a cold shower

  • Bandage healthy skin

  • Do intense exercise

  • Blast loud music

At Relationship Matters Therapy Centre, we’re here to support you during these difficult times. Many therapists have experience working with self-harm and, more broadly, emotion regulation issues.


Always remember that seeking professional help is a sign of strength.