What is self-harm?

You may think of self-harm more commonly as “cutting,” but cutting is actually only one type of self-harm. Self-harm is any deliberate behavior inflicted upon oneself in order to cause harm to one’s body. It’s not only destructive to the person’s health and wellbeing, but carries risks for other potential underlying mental and physical health issues.

Signs and Symptoms

 (from ncbi.nimh)  

  •  Tell-tale signs of injury on the arms, fists, and forearms opposite the dominant hand (although, self-harmers can and do employ multiple methods of self-harm on different areas of the body) 
  • inappropriate dress for season (consistently wearing long sleeves or pants in summer)
  • constant use of wrist bands/coverings
  • unwillingness to participate in events or activities which require less body coverage (i.e., swimming or gym class)
  •  frequent bandages, odd or unexplainable paraphernalia (e.g., razor blades or other implements which could be used to cut or pound)
  •  heightened signs of depression or anxiety    


Reasons that people self-harm are complex, and depend to some extent on the individual. Regardless of the reasons, though, any form of self-harm is a maladaptive coping mechanism.  

Reasons for self-harm include: 

  • To distract from emotional pain 
  • To feel in control over one’s body and mind
  • To punish oneself
  • To relieve tension
  • To feel real by feeling pain or seeing evidence of injury
  • To numb; to not feel anything
  • To experience a sense of euphoria (associated with release of endorphins)
  • To communicate pain, anger, or other emotions to oneself or others
  • To nurture oneself through the caring for wounds. 

  Other potential contributing factors include: 

  • childhood abuse or trauma, especially childhood
  • sexual abuse
  •  eating disorders
  • substance abuse
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • depression
  • anxiety disorders  

Common Misconceptions

 (adapted from Cornell’s Research Program on Self Injurious Behaviour in Adults and Adolescents)    

 1) Myth: Self-harm is a suicide attempt or failed suicide attempt.

Fact: Most studies find that self-harm is often undertaken as a means of avoiding suicide. There are important distinctions between those attempting suicide and those who self-harm in order to manage their stress and cope with overwhelming emotions.  

2) Myth: Anyone who self-harms is crazy and should be locked up.

Fact: For most who practice self-harm, it is used as a coping mechanism. If you think about it, there are arguably a number of coping mechanisms that are similarly destructive to a person’s mental or physical health, like trying to escape one’s problems by drinking alcohol. These behaviors don’t mean someone’s crazy, but rather that they are using a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with their underlying problems. Maladaptive coping mechanisms don’t provide actual long-term relief from underlying issues, and severely undermine the health and wellbeing of the individual.

3) Myth: People who self-harm just do it for the attention.

Fact: The majority of people who engage in self-harm go to great extremes to hide their cuts, scars or burns. Although not overtly attention-seeking, hidden self-harm is still a symptom of underlying distress and it merits attention from others who are in a position to help. That being said, if someone is injuring him/herself for attention, then this person is crying out for help and needs to get it.  

4) Myth: Self-harm is untreatable.

Fact: There are a variety of treatment approaches for self-harm. There is, however, no “magic bullet” in the treatment of self-harm, as the behavior is most often a symptom of any of a variety of other underlying issues. Because it is most often
used as a coping mechanism, the practice of self-harm typically does not stop until the individual who uses it has other methods to cope and is fully ready to stop self-injuring – regardless of the treatment approach used.  

5) Myth: People who self-harm are manipulative.

Fact: Self-harm is more about relieving tension and distress than it is about manipulating others. Although some individuals report starting the practice as a means of getting attention from someone, very few report this as a primary reason for continuing the practice.  

6) Myth: People who self-harm only cut themselves.

Fact: Although a common method of self-harm is cutting, there are many methods of self-harm. Studies also show that individuals who report repeat self-harm often report using multiple methods. See our FAQ section on this page for more information about other methods of self-harm.

 7) Myth: Anyone who self-harms is part of the “Gothic” or “Emo” subgroup. 

Fact: Self-harm can affect anyone.
People who self-harm come from all types of groups, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. People who self injure may be male or female, rich or poor, gay, straight, bisexual or questioning, and from any part of the world. They may be student leaders, teammates, friends, part of the “popular crowd,” “hipsters,” “jocks,” or top students. It’s impossible to classify someone as a person who self-harms (or not) based on what they look like, what activities they participate in, or who their friends are. 

8) Myth: People who self-harm enjoy the pain or they can’t feel it.

Fact: Self-harm most often hurts. There is no evidence that individuals who self-harm feel pain any differently than people who do not self-harm. Sometimes, pain is the whole point; the person is trying to feel something or reconnect with his/her body.  

9) Myth: Someone who self-harms can stop if they really want to.

Fact: For some people, self-harm can be an addiction. While some people may be able to stop, others cannot. Regardless, the maladaptive nature of this coping mechanism necessitates getting help.  

10) Myth: Someone who self-harms is a danger to others.

Fact: Self-harm is generally a private activity. Many who practice it are accustomed to turning their anger and frustration inward rather than outward, and addicted to self-harm.   

Kinds of self-harm

It’s not uncommon for self-harmers to engage in a variety of destructive self-harm behaviors. Self-harm can include but is not limited to the following behaviors

  • Scratching  
  • Cutting, carving, or puncturing of skin  
  • Burning
  • Hitting or biting oneself
  • Ingesting or embedding toxic substances or foreign objects
  • Hair pulling
  • Interfering with the healing of wounds
  • Self-bruising          

Coping with self-harm

 Self-Harm is a serious, maladaptive behaviour that can seriously damage your physical and mental wellbeing if left untreated. There are healthier, alternative ways to cope with your situation and feelings. Below are some tips on coping with self-harm:*

  • Let out your anger in a different way – such as running, screaming, punching a pillow, throwing something, or ripping something apart.
  • Acknowledge and express your feelings to yourself – ask yourself why you self-harm. Identify the emotions and stresses that trigger you to self-harm. Accept that even if it makes you feel good, it’s hurting you.
  • Find other ways to feel intense physical sensations – such as squeezing ice cubes, taking a very cold shower, chewing chili peppers or a grapefruit peel.
  • Keep yourself busy –  if you feel tempted to self-harm, get up and go do something else, such as emailing, hanging out with friends, walking, cooking, listening to music, going to the gym, etc.
  • Write about it – write about how you’re feeling, and use your journal to express any feelings and frustrations you’re experiencing
  • Know your triggers -  and how to avoid them 
  • Do something relaxing – such as meditation, yoga, reading, writing, or taking a bubble bath.

* These tips are not a substitution for medical or professional advice. The most effective way to treat self-harm is to seek professional help. Contact the Counseling Center to set up an appointment.  


“Self Injury on Campus.” National Alliance of Mental Illness. 2006 Jan.  

“Self Injury.”Self Injury Foundation.
“Self Injury.” Mental Health America.  

Whitlock, Janis, and Caicedo, Saskya. “Top 15 Misconceptions about Self Injury.” “Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults.”