The Cycle of Self-Harm: Impact on One’s Mental Health and Emotional Well-being

24 April 2021 / By Social Media

(TW: Mention of Self-harm)

Self-harm, also known as self-injury, is defined as the deliberate injury to one’s own body causing harm to an individual, irrespective of the motivation (Hawton et al., 2003). The intention behind the behaviour can be an attempt at suicide, but instead most of the times it is an unhealthy way of coping with emotional pain, intense anger, or frustration. The most common form of self-injurious behaviours include cutting, burning, biting, pulling out hair, punching oneself, hair-pulling, breaking bones, or drinking a harmful substance. However, any behaviour that causes harm or injury to someone as a way to deal with difficult emotions can be seen as self-harm.

Self-harm behaviours can be a way of:

  • Temporarily relieving intense feelings, pressure, or anxiety
  • A means to control and manage pain
  • Providing a way to break through emotional numbness (a way to feel anything at all)
  • Asking for help in an indirect way
  • An attempt to affect others by manipulating them, making them care, feel guilt, or make them go away

Self-harm usually starts as a way to relieve oneself from distressing thoughts and feelings. This might give temporary relief from the emotional pain the person is feeling. However, this relief is only temporary because the underlying reasons behind the distress still remain. Soon after, feelings of guilt and shame might follow at the self-harm, self-disgust or tension might build up, another trigger event might increase the distress, which can continue the cycle.

The triggers or reasons that can lead to self-harm can range from difficulties at school, at home or work, interpersonal relationships issues, sense of isolation, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug abuse, or any traumatic event. When an individual is unable to express their emotions and talk about things which are distressing him/her, the pressure can build up and become unbearable. Some people turn this in on themselves and use their bodies as a way to express the thoughts and feelings they can’t say aloud. The self-harm can begin as early in childhood or adolescence.

Self-harm is many times viewed as a suicide attempt by people who don’t understand it. However, for many people, self-harm is about trying to cope with difficult feelings and circumstances. Some people have described it is a way of staying alive and surviving these difficulties. But it is important to know that some people who self-harm can feel suicidal and might attempt to take their own life, which is why it must always be taken seriously.

The long-term effects of self-harming can be physically damaging, including permanent scarring, infected wounds, substance abuse or addiction; while the unhealthy coping can also lead to a whole range of other negative effects, such as consistent and intrusive thoughts, familial conflict, feelings of shame/guilt/disgust with oneself, social isolation or permanent numbness or weakness in certain parts of the body.

Asking for help and having support is very important to stop self-harming. Talking to someone you trust can help you discover why you self-harm and help to find new ways to cope with difficulties. People have found ‘distraction techniques’ a useful strategy to reduce or stop self-harm. Writing down the distressing thoughts, using a play-dough or squeeze ball to relive tension, taking a walk, breathing exercises, listening to music, doing something creative or anything that suits your individual needs can help release the emotional tension and overcome the urge to self-harm. Connecting with people around, changing the environment and other such self-help strategies can also prove to be useful. But seeking professional help, to facilitate awareness and understanding about the reasons for self-harm and going on the journey of recovery by engaging in more positive ways of coping with distressing emotions can help achieve a long-term positive impact on one’s mental health and well-being.

Hetrick, S. E., Subasinghe, A., Anglin, K., Hart, L., Morgan, A., & Robinson, J. (2020).
Understanding the needs of young people who engage in self-harm: A qualitative investigation. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02916
Self-Harm causes & side-effects. (2018, September 17). Retrieved March 17, 2021, from symptoms/
The truth about self-harm. (2020, August 10). Retrieved March 17, 2021, from

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