Self-injury: What it is and how to cope

Published on
Updated on
Use a read speaker Print a document

Self-injury is a coping mechanism that some people may use as one of many ways to deal with difficult or overwhelming emotions. Self-injury is often done in private and can be hard to talk about, as it may bring on feelings of shame for those who self-injure. Here, Kids Help Phone shares information about the possible reasons a person may self-injure, ideas for coping and tips to open up to others about self-injury.

If you or someone you care about is experiencing self-injury, support is available. Young people across Canada can access Kids Help Phone’s e-mental health services 24/7.

What is self-injury?

Self-injury is the act of someone purposely hurting themselves without the intent of ending their own life. People who self-injure might cut, burn, hit or bite themselves, pull out their own hair or pick at sores on their skin. Although people who self-injure are not intending to die, they can sometimes injure themselves more than intended, which can put them in danger.

Why do people self-injure?

Self-injury is sometimes used as a coping mechanism for navigating intense feelings or emotional distress. The injuries, or the act of self-injury itself, may give a voice to the emotional pain that someone is experiencing, or provide a distraction from emotional pain by transforming it into physical pain. For some people, self-injury may provide a feeling / sense of relief or control. While it might make someone feel better in the moment, the overpowering or difficult emotions can often come back.

Some situations that might make a person want to self-injure are:

There’s no one situation or cause that leads someone to self-injure. Everyone’s mental health changes over time. There may be some days where your coping skills aren’t what you’d like them to be, or some days where you have more difficulty managing emotions, than other days.

What can I do to stop or cope with self-injury?

The urge to self-injure can be strong, especially if you’ve done it in the past and it’s made you feel better, even temporarily. While self-injury can be difficult to stop, there are things you can do to help cope with your feelings, and alternatives to try to feel that same sense of relief or control, like:

  • get outside or move your body (in whatever way you can)
  • yell into a pillow
  • rip a piece of paper into tiny pieces
  • participate in an activity or sport you enjoy
  • draw, paint, doodle or colour
  • lie down or rest in a place that feels safe
  • take deep breaths or try a breathing exercise
  • watch TV or play video games
  • listen to music, dance or sing
  • use a marker to write something positive about yourself or draw on the body part you usually injure
  • reach out to a friend to chat (you can try these tips to stay connected for inspiration)
  • repeat self-affirmations like, “I won’t hurt myself. This is something I can control, not something that will control me.”

You can find more coping ideas and tools by checking out these resources:

If you have just self-injured and are hurt badly or bleeding a lot, please contact emergency services or a mobile crisis team in your area (if available) to access immediate support.

6 ways to support someone who’s dealing with self-injury

Learn more

How do I tell people I’ve been self-injuring?

It can be tough to tell people that you’re self-injuring. Planning out what you want to say can help you prepare and feel less nervous. If you’re not ready to open up yet, that’s also OK. You can try journaling or writing a letter (you don’t have to send it) to help explain how you’re feeling. You may choose to tell one or more people, particularly if it takes some time to find the right person / supports. Here are some more ideas to help you plan:

  • Think about who you want to talk to. It could be a friend, counsellor, teacher, parent / caregiver or anyone you trust and feel safe around. Kids Help Phone’s professional counsellors and trained, volunteer crisis responders can also support you.
  • Share that you have something important you need to talk about. Find a space where you feel safe. Ask the other person if they’re ready and willing to hear what it is you’d like to share with them.
  • You can start by saying something like, “It’s hard for me to talk about this, but I need help with something. I’ve been self-injuring and I need support.” You can check out these difficult discussion tips for more resources to use during your conversation.
  • Write down what you want to say if you’re struggling to find the right words. Kids Help Phone’s professional counsellors and volunteer crisis responders can also help you practise this conversation ahead of time, if you’d like support.
  • After sharing, give them time to take it in. This may be a shock to the other person. They might not know exactly how to help, or find themselves navigating their own difficult feelings. You may choose to reach out to someone you trust together for support.

Your experience is valid, and you deserve to feel supported. Help is available no matter what you’re going through. If you’d like to talk to someone about self-injury and mental health and well-being, you can reach out to Kids Help Phone 24/7.