If life in danger call Triple Zero 000
If life in danger call Triple Zero 000

Self harm

Self-harm can be a one-off event or become a repeated behaviour that can be hard to change. At Lifeline we are here for you with respect and without judgment.

What is self harm?

Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning, biting or scratching the skin, pulling out hair, hitting oneself, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications.

Self-harm is often used as a way to respond to and manage emotional pain, overwhelming feelings or distress. For the most part, people self-harm without wanting to die but sometimes they may have suicidal intentions. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from the emotional pain. In this way, self-harm can be a coping strategy used by individuals to help them continue to live.

For those people who self-harm with no intention of dying, the risk of accidental death is very real. Additionally, if self-harm does not relieve the tension or help control emotional pain, the person may injure themselves more severely, or may start to believe they can no longer control their pain and consider suicide.

There are various reasons people may engage in self-harming behaviours, such as:

  • To cope with difficult or painful emotions, such as shame, guilt, loneliness or fear
  • To manage issues the person may be experiencing, such as life stress or mental health issues
  • As a form of punishment toward themselves
  • To release tension or other emotions
  • To feel ‘something’ as opposed to a feeling of numbness they may be experiencing
  • To feel more in control.

The consequences of self-harming behaviour can be fatal, and it needs careful assessment and care by a health professional.

Self-help strategies

It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful:

  • Delay — try waiting 10 minutes before self-harming. If this works, try waiting 20 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, one day etc. This may allow you to find other ways to cope and manage in the meanwhile.
  • Distract — you can use distraction when you feel the urge to self-harm or when you are self-harming. You may want to try some exercise, call a friend, play with a pet, take a shower, go for walk, play a game, call a helpline, play loud music, clench then relax all your muscles.
  • Divert — find an activity or perform an action which is similar to self-harm but does not cause injury, such as holding an ice-cube, having a cold or hot shower, punching a pillow, eating something with a strong taste like chilli.
  • Deep breathing — count to five as you breathe in slowly – then count to five as you breathe out slowly. You may also try any other relaxation method that works for you.

You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It is important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.

Understand your self-harm

The more you understand your self-harm, the better equipped you are to make different choices. You may want to write down what happens before and after you self-harm. This can help you to:

  • Recognise triggers – triggers are things that create a desire to self-harm. These might include birthdays, anniversaries, specific thoughts or feelings, physical sensations.
  • Recognise urges – what does the urge feel like? The urge might occur right before the act of self-harm.
    • Specific thoughts “I need to feel better now”
    • Strong emotions like sadness, despair, or anger
    • Physical sensations – shallow breath, racing heart
    • Disconnection with yourself, such as feeling outside of your own body, numbness.

It can be difficult to know what to do and how to cope, but help is available. Below are some places to go for information and support. If life is in danger, please call 000.

  • Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
  • Headspace – provides free early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds. 1800 650 890 or eheadspace Support | headspace
  • SANE Australia - a free helpline providing information, advice and referral to anyone concerned about mental illness – 1800 187 236
  • My Compass – a free online self-led program for people experiencing mild to moderate depression, anxiety or stress, or for those who simply want to build good mental health mycompass.org.au
  • Calm Harm – a free app developed by psychologists to help you resist or manage the urge to self-harm.

If you are in danger call 000


For Crisis Support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or via text on 0477 13 11 14 (available 24/7).