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Why do people self harm?

Understanding why people self harm can help you to support someone who is self harming


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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Self harm is when someone deliberately hurts themselves. If someone you know is self harming, it can be difficult to understand why they are doing it. Learning more about self harm and the reasons why someone would hurt themselves can help you to support them to find the help they need.

If you or someone you know is self harming, it can feel very worrying, but it is important to know that there is support out there.

Why would someone engage in self harming behaviour?

When someone is self harming, it is a sign that they are going through a hard time - they could be struggling with mental health issues, feeling overwhelmed with emotions, or dealing with a lot of stress. There is no one reason why a person might self harm, but whatever their reason, it often comes back to emotional pain. Some people may self harm often and find it difficult to stop, while others might deliberately hurt themselves a couple of times and won't do it again.

Self harm can be a compulsive behaviour, which means it can be difficult to control. Once the urge hits, many people find it hard to resist it. Self harm can even become addictive because of the endorphins (chemicals that are released in the brain that make you feel good) some people experience when they self harm. It's important to acknowledge that self harm is not a choice, but a behaviour that can be difficult to let go of.

Dealing with difficult emotions

Many people self harm as a coping mechanism to deal with intense and difficult emotions. These feelings and emotions can be pushed down, and eventually the person might express how they’re feeling through physical pain.

For some people, the physical pain is a distraction from their emotional pain, and it can be easier to cope with this physical pain than it is with the invisible emotional pain they’re feeling inside.

Learning how to deal with difficult emotions can help to reduce self harm.

Relieving anger or tension

Some people find that self harm can help to relieve tension and calm them down when they are overwhelmed or distressed. They could be holding in feelings of anxiety, stress, self-hatred, or anger, and this can build up inside. Self harming is a way of expressing these feelings and relieving the pressure they’re feeling from bottling up their emotions.

Some people have a hard time expressing anger. Instead, they might turn their anger on themselves by self harming. Learning how to control your anger can help to find healthier ways to express it.

Young-man-thinking

Not knowing how to express feelings

When someone has difficulty expressing how they feel, they can bottle all of their emotions up. It can be hard to find the right words to explain what’s going on and open up about your mental health. Some people even have difficulty crying. Turning to self harm is a way to express how they feel inside.

It might also be used if they feel like they can’t express how they feel in a certain environment, like at home, and so individuals may use self harm as a way of expressing those feelings in the moment.

Feeling numb

When someone is experiencing depression or mental health issues, they may be feeling numb inside. When someone experiences a loss of feelings and emotions, or if they are feeling disassociated (disconnected from themselves), they might turn to physical pain as a way to feel something.

Dealing with trauma

Trauma is a response to a very distressing or disturbing event or experience that can long-lasting effects. When something traumatic happens in someone’s life, it can be difficult to cope. Facing what has happened can cause a lot of emotional pain. This could lead to turning to self harm as a way of dealing with this trauma.

It could be something that has happened recently, or it could be something that happened in the past. People who are otherwise happy with their lives could still turn to self harm any time they think about something traumatic from their past.

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Experiencing change

If someone is going through a big period of change in their lives, such as changing schools, going to college, a relationship break up, or parents getting divorced, they can experience a lot of different emotions. Change often brings uncertainty, and this uncertainty can be overwhelming. Without knowing how to cope with everything that’s going on, a person might start self harming in order to deal with the overwhelming emotions they’re feeling.

Mental health problems

Not everyone experiencing mental health difficulties engages in self harm, but some people dealing with mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, or other conditions might turn to self harm.

Finding support for a mental health condition can help people to find other ways to cope.

What to do if someone is self harming

It’s worth remembering that self harm is not something that people choose to do and can simply stop whenever they want. Often, it is a compulsive behaviour that they feel they have to do, and they experience urges that are hard to ignore. Reducing self harm can take time. However, it is possible to end self harm and find other ways to cope.

If you or someone you know is self harming, it’s important to reach out for help. Find more information here on what to do if someone is self harming:

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Published July 10th2019
Last updated Novem­ber 22nd2019
Tags self harm self harm campaign
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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