What is self-harm?

Self-harm acts are actions done to the surface of the body by a person to relieve or cope with distressful or intolerable feelings. These actions can result in tissue damage, sensations of pain, and may include bleeding or bruising.  

Self-harm acts are different from:

  • Accidental actions that result in injury (e.g., cutting one’s finger while preparing food)
  • Alterations to the body surface that are done for cosmetic reasons (e.g., tattoos)
  • Actions taken to end one’s life (suicide)

In the past, self-harm acts were often grouped with suicide. It is now recognized that

self-harm is not an act to end one’s life.  It is an act to keep oneself alive – by providing a way to cope with and manage emotional pain.

It is important to be aware, though, that a person who is self-harming may also be at risk for suicide. Intolerable distress can lead to both self-harm and suicide. 

Why does a person self-harm?

It can be very difficult for people who have not engaged in self-harm to understand why someone would engage in actions to elicit a painful experience.   

Self-harm acts are not done to experience physical pain, they are actions done to block emotional pain.

A person may engage in self-harm to:

  • feel better or experience a positive feeling
  • deal with past experiences of being treated badly (e.g., abuse, bullying)
  • lessen guilt, shame and self-hatred
  • keep themselves from harming others

Self-harm acts  help a person to cope by:

  • making emotional pain real by making it external, visible and tangible 
  • replacing emotional pain with physical pain that seems more real and manageable
  • being self-punishment for a perceived weakness or wrongdoing (response to self-hatred or self-blame)
  • releasing tension from bottled up feelings that might otherwise explode
  • reducing numbness and providing a sense of being real  
  • triggering positive feelings (through the release of endorphins)
  • fostering emotional healing through physical healing    
  • being a way to self-nurture (take care of oneself)

Self-harm acts are often described by experts as being impulsive and as occurring immediately after a stressful experience. However, in a study on experiences of self harm, the participants reported that very few of their self-harm acts were done immediately after something that had just happened. Most of their self-harm acts occurred after situations where they had spent some time reflecting and thinking about a past troubling experience. 

“A lot of times it’s just…being alone for hours…with your thoughts."2

Self-harm is most often a very private act that takes place when the person is alone. Wounds or scars may be covered because of shame and fear of being judged by others if their self-harm was revealed.

Self-harm acts are sometimes done in front of other people to communicate intensity of distress, a need for support and help or to avoid hurting someone else.


Self-harm can bring instant relief; however it can complicate life and presents risks to health. Learn about managing self-harm


1Comment by a participant who had self-harmed. In Tse, L. M., Losee, J. S., & Stephens, K. R. (2008, March). Individuals and their confidants’ viewpoints on self-harm: A qualitative analysis. Based on a program presented at the ACA Annual Conference & Exhibition, Honolulu, HI.
2Author of blog entitled “You are not alone”.