For some of us, self-harm can offer a sense of control or release – but the cycle can be a dangerous one, both physically and mentally. We share ways you can take back control and start to manage self-harming thoughts

The stigma around mental health as a whole may have begun to decrease in recent years, but when it comes to certain issues, there is still so much work to be done. Self-harm is often misunderstood by those who have not experienced self-harming thoughts. Despite around 10-13% of young people and over 6% of adults reporting having self-harmed at some point during their lives, many common misconceptions stil prevail.

Negative stereotypes and assumptions can see some people assuming self-harm is a form of attention-seeking, that it’s something only teenagers (specifically teenage girls) do, that those who do it enjoy it, or most commonly, that everyone who self-harms is suicidal. While this may be the case for some, there is overwhelming evidence that the number of non-suicidal self-harm cases has risen in England. Over the past decade, cases of non-suicidal self-harm have nearly tripled.

In a recent study published in the BMJ, lead author Sally McManus from the National Centre for Social Research in London commented that: “Non-suicidal self-harm is increasingly being reported as a way of coping. We need to help people learn more appropriate and effective ways of dealing with emotional stress.”

People of any age, nationality, sexuality, gender, and socioeconomic background can experience suicidal thoughts. Feeling this way doesn’t mean you have ‘done something wrong’ or that there is ‘something wrong’ with you. It means that you may need a little extra help and support to start feeling like you again.

If you are worried you are experiencing self-harming thoughts or have self-harmed, there are things you can do to help you take back control, learn new, healthier coping mechanisms, and start to handle overwhelming emotions that may be contributing to you feeling this way.

three young women sit together, talking about mental health

What ‘counts’ as self-harm?

Self-harm can refer to any way someone hurts or injures themselves purposely. Some people may do this as a way of coping with or expressing how they are feeling when things get overwhelming, while others may feel like it gives them a sense of control or release.

Some self-harming behaviours can be harder to identify, such as getting in fights on purpose, exercising excessively, scratching or pulling your own hair, while others can fall under the more ‘traditional idea’ of what self-harm ‘looks’ like.

If you are purposefully doing something that you know will or could hurt you, it could be a sign that you are self-harming and may need a little extra help and support to find new, healthier ways to cope with things.

Why do I self-harm?

There’s no one reason why people self-harm. How you are feeling, and why you are doing or thinking as you are is unique to you. Some people self-harm as a way of dealing with something that happened in their past. Others do it to help them cope with something that is causing them stress, distress, or upset. Some people may not know why they are doing or feeling the way that they are – which can be confusing and frustrating.

Common experiences that may affect your ability to cope and could lead to self-harming thoughts can include:

  • increased stress or pressure at school, university, home or work
  • emotional, physical, or online bullying
  • financial worries, redundancy, or unemployment
  • the death of a loved one
  • changes or a breakdown in your relationship, or confusion about your sexuality
  • low self-esteem
  • health problems or illness
  • other mental health related issues or conditions, including depression, anxiety, or anger-related issues

No matter why you are experiencing the thoughts that you are, it’s important to know and understand that you aren’t alone. It’s never too late to speak out and ask for help.

Two men hold hands, offering each other support

How can I stop self-harming?

Breaking the cycle

Self-harm can become a vicious cycle. Emotional suffering can lead to overload, which can cause you to feel panicked and overwhelmed. This, in turn, can lead to self-harming, which may give a short or temporary sense of relief, before feelings of shame or grief about what you have done set in. This can lead back to emotional suffering and overload in what feels like a neverending cycle. But there are things you can do to break this cycle, recognise when it feels like your mental health is spiralling, and create a support network that puts your wellbeing first.

Identify your triggers

Learning to recognise your triggers can make it easier for you to track your health and wellbeing before crisis hits. The more you know about what can cause you to experience self-harming thoughts, the better prepared you can be when you know these situations may arise in the future.

Keeping track of when you self-harm can help you to spot patterns around what you were doing, how you were feeling, or what you were thinking about before you self-harmed. Can you see any specific feelings, places, situations, or even people who were present when you felt the urge?

Over time, this can help you to spot early warning signs and find ways to distract yourself and break the train of thought that can lead to destructive behaviour.

Close-up of someone writing in their journal

Find new coping techniques

Discovering new ways you can distract yourself, interrupt urges, or cope with how you are feeling can all help to change self-harming behaviours into something else. At its core, for many self-harm is how we try to deal with feelings, thoughts, or difficult situations that are overwhelming us. Alternatives you could try can include:

Finding a new way to express yourself and how you are feeling. This could be through painting, drawing, or scribbling; journaling or writing down how you are feeling; or even listening to music that reflects how you are feeling in the moment. Different forms of artistic release can help us to explore and express thoughts, feelings and emotions in a new way. When it’s hard to articulate things, art can offer an outlet.

Art therapy works on the idea that we can use art as a way to communicate our emotions - particularly if they are confusing or distressing. By expressing ourselves using something tangible, like paintbrushes, charcoal, or pens, we can feel more connected to the world around us. You can try art as a form of release just for you, or if you think therapy may be an option for you, working with an art therapist one-to-one or with a group can help you to start conversations around what you are feeling and how you can express it.

As art therapist Eden O Shoro, MA, HCPC, BAAT explains, "Sometimes it is difficult to find the words to describe your emotions or how you are feeling. Art has the potential to heal. The art-making process and creative therapies can be a reparative and a holistic approach for people to develop new ways of being and relating while gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of yourself, and building on self-empowerment."

Close-up of paint covered hands

Try new ways to calm and soothe yourself. Self-care is an important part of looking after our health and wellbeing. Finding simple ways you can look after yourself, soothe how you are feeling, and help you to feel calmer and in control can all help.

Try taking a bath or a hot shower; as Happiful writer Fiona explains, bathing can have surprising mental health benefits. Warm baths (ideally 40-45C) can help ease physical tension and relax muscles. When combined with aromatherapy through essential oils, you can help to create a calmer mindset, decrease feelings of anxiety, and boost your body’s natural abilities to heal.

Wrapping yourself in a warm blanket, listening to calming music, or giving yourself a hand, foot, or neck massage with essential oils can all offer their benefits. If you have a pet, take time out to cuddle with them. Our pets can boost our wellbeing in surprising ways: from providing companionship to decreasing our anxiety and stress levels, our furry friends help us to both create a sense of routine and to live in the moment – a great way to break out from any negative thought cycles that may begin taking hold.

Someone cuddles a sleepy puppy

Release tension and vent anger in a healthy way. Vigorous exercises such as running or dancing can help you to release tension whilst giving you a quick boost thanks to the release in endorphins. Punching or screaming into your pillow, squeezing a stress ball, or squshing modelling clay can also help you to vent your anger or nervous tension in the moment.

Find a way to feel connected. If you are feeling numb or disconnected, find a way to help sync up your body and mind. Taking a cold shower or chewing on something with a strong and distinct flavour, such as peppermint, grapefruit peel, or a chilli pepper, can help you to focus on how you feel. If you are feeling isolated or alone, speaking with a friend on the phone, catching up over coffee, or even reaching out to speak online through forums or with professionals can all help.

If you want to speak with someone but don’t feel ready to open up with friends or family, the Samaritans charity offer judgement-free listening 24/7. You can call them free of charge on 116 123, or visit their website to discover other ways to get in contact.

Develop a support system

Joining an online forum, finding a local support group, or telling just one person you know and love can be the first step towards developing a system of help and support when you are feeling at your lowest. Taking that first step can feel huge – and you know what? It is. But finding just one person you can open up to and confide in can be a catalyst for change. Opening up can help you to admit that you are struggling, that there is a problem, and that you are in a place where you feel you are ready and able to change and move towards recovery.

Charities line SANE, Samaritans, and YoungMinds all offer help and support for those who self-harm.

If you want to start the conversation around self-harm and mental health with a friend or loved one, but aren’t sure where to start, these three tools can help get you started or try these tips on how to talk about mental health at work to help open up the conversation.

If your workplace is supportive, it could be worth talking about setting up a Wellness Action Plan (WAP). Designed to be an easy and practical way to help you support your own mental health at work, it can also offer information and guidelines so your manager knows how they can best support you when you are struggling. Mind has created some great guides for employees and managers to help explain what WAPs are, as well as how they can help and support you. They even include a template to help you get started.

If you are considering joining a support group, find out more about the differences between group therapy and support groups – and how they can help.

Work with a therapist

Counselling doesn’t have to be a scary step. If you have fallen into a cycle of self-harm, stopping by yourself can be extremely difficult. Working with a professional can offer support, teach you new self-help techniques, as well as helping you to better understand yourself and what works best for you.

Speaking with your GP can be a good first step. They should be able to talk you through your options, any medication they may feel would be appropriate for related mental health conditions (such as anxiety or depression), as well as to put you in touch with local mental health services.

It can be tempting to downplay or gloss over how you are feeling or the extent of your self-harming, but it’s important to speak as honestly and openly as you can. This can help you to get the right help and support for you.

Talking therapies such as psychotherapy can be particularly helpful, as this type of counselling can give you space and time to talk about how you’re feeling in a safe, confidential, and non-judgemental environment.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy are also recommended for those who self-harm. CBT can help you to recognise how your thoughts may affect your feelings and behaviour, helping you to break overwhelming problems into smaller, easier to manage pieces. Psychodynamic counselling can help you to unravel, experience, and understand your true feelings in order to resolve them.

If you’re considering therapy but aren’t sure how to get started, try these five questions to ask yourself when searching for a counsellor.

Cultivate mindfulness

Mindfulness can help us to remain present and feel more grounded. If you find your mind wandering, or you notice you are having automatic negative thoughts or negative self-talk, mindfulness can be a tool to help you focus on the moment, reconnect with yourself, and to alleviate stress.

If you struggle to recognise your emotions, it can also help you to become more aware of how you are feeling both physically and mentally. At times, it can be easy to get stuck on autopilot; whether it’s something like doing the dishes each evening or making our morning commute, it’s natural that your mind may wander and focus on upcoming events or responsibilities that may cause you more stress. But by practising mindfulness – focusing on how you are feeling now, what you can see, smell, hear, taste, feel, how you physically and emotionally feel – you can learn to notice and stop negative habits and reactions to everyday stress.

Counsellor Samantha Flanagan BACP explains, “Mindfulness encourages us to live in each moment so that we spend less time ruminating on the past or present. The past is where depression dwells and the future can be where anxiety sits. We may ruminate about the past, metaphorically beating ourselves up about what we 'should' have done.

“Mindfulness allows us to focus on moment to moment thoughts and emotions and allows us to reflect more deeply on moment-to-moment awareness.”

Find out more about how you can declutter your mind and incorporate mindfulness in your day-to-day routine.

A woman sits by an open window, practicing mindfulness

Practice self-compassion

Being compassionate and showing kindness to others can feel like second nature for many of us. Showing our loved ones that we care, reminding them that they are loved and important to us may feel a lot more natural than showing ourselves that same level of love and attention.

We need to learn to be kinder to ourselves. If you struggle with your inner critic, there are ways you can start to cultivate more self-compassion. Through practising gratitude, reframing critical thoughts, and seeking help, you can learn to be a little kinder and more understanding when you find yourself struggling.

Shake up your surroundings

Just as our thought patterns can become stuck in a negative cycle, we can also develop negative repetitive patterns based on our surroundings. Maybe you find yourself having thoughts of self-harm at a specific time of day, when you are in a specific room, or when you visit a certain place.

Breaking up your routine can help you to remove yourself from the place or situation that may be contributing to how you are feeling. Once you can start to notice situations or settings that may be triggering these feelings, you can work towards finding ways to disrupt these patterns or associations in the future.

Make a ‘safe box’

The Mental Health Foundation suggests creating a box that can help you when you are feeling overwhelmed or have the urge to self-harm.

Grab a box or bag and fill it with things that make you feel happy and calm, or that can act as a good distraction. Crossword puzzles, sudoku, or mindful colouring can be calming activities. Keeping a copy of your favourite book, music, movie, or podcast can also help.

Why not try and create a list of activities that help you to feel calmer and keep this in your box; this can give you a wider choice of things to do when you may not feel able to concentrate on finding something to distract you.

Finding help here and now

As Mind explains, there are three key areas that can help you help yourself.

Understand - learn to understand your patterns of self-harm.
Distract - find ways to distract yourself from your urges to self-harm.
Delay - if distraction isn’t working, wait five minutes before you self harm. Try to gradually build up how long you can wait.

Recovery from self-harm is possible with the right support. Understanding why you self-harm, learning to recognise your triggers, and developing new ways to help you cope are all key. Even with professional help and support, you may experience times where you fall back into old habits – this can be a part of the process; try not to be discouraged if this happens.

The longer you wait to get help and support, the harder it can feel. Remember: you’re not alone. You deserve to be happy. When you are ready, there are people ready and waiting to help.

If you are worried about your own immediate health, wellbeing, or safety, it’s important to call 999, visit your local GP, or go straight to A&E to access help and support. If you have a physical injury that may need treatment, visit your local minor injuries unit, walk-in entre, or go to A&E. To find out more about seeking immediate and long-term help and support, visit the NHS self-harm website.