What is Self-harm? 10 common methods

There are many ways people can harm themselves, usually people assume ‘self-harm’ is referring to cutting this is just one of the many methods.  Here I explain about this and some other common methods all of which I have some personal experience of and I will give brief details of my own experience to help with the explanations…

self-injurious behaviour is a key diagnostic criteria for Borderline personality Disorder, but it can also be a condition in it’s own right, or related to other problems.

It can be addictive and some self-harmer’s will experience ‘urges’ to act in these ways as I explain in my previous post *Trigger* Thinking about Self-harm

It is not about other people (attention-seeking), although other people may have triggered a person to self-harm, the actual action is entirely about the self.

1. Cutting – This is what people traditionally think of when they say someone ‘self-harms’. Cutting is often done as a form of self-punishment or as a ‘release’ as Katie explains in her post’s about self-harm myths in the majority of cases this is not about ‘attention seeking’ as people often assume.

Cut’s can be superficial, or severe depending on the level of need of the cutter – personally I only need to see blood from a cut and I am satisfied – it doesn’t need to be deep and I’ve never needed stitches of hospital treatment for my cuts (yet) but often a single cut is not enough, I need to cut multiple times. Also cutting is not necessarily a suicide attempt, cuts on the forearm, thighs or other places where they can be hidden (and many cutters will go to great lengths to hide what they are doing!) are more common than dangerous wrist cuts (also most cutters know how to cut if they really want it to be a suicide attempt and if they did this you would have little chance of seeing them again as they would get it right!

The resulting damage is usually more immediate than in some forms of self-harm, but may not leave long-lasting damage beyond scarring.

Age-standardised disability-adjusted life year...

2. Physical Injury – Other forms of physical injury are common in self-harm, this includes things like punching walls, head-banging, burning, cutting one’s hair off and many other things, from mild injurious behaviours like skin picking to very risky ones like jumping from heights.

Sometimes these methods of self-harm can result in more serious injuries than cutting, broken bones being one possible result and provoking physical fights with others.

I have punched many a wall in my time usually the most outward expression of anger I will show, but I avoid directing this at others or provoking fights. Sitting banging my head against brick walls is usually related to frustration and inner hurt. I’ve not broken any bones (thankfully) but have had some nasty cuts and bruises. Cuts and burns have a higher chance of scarring as to refresh a ‘release’ feeling they will be picked and scratched at so they bleed again.

And like Britany Spears I have also chopped off my own hair, I didn’t shave it like she did, but I did hack randomly and viciously, in a desire to make myself look as ugly as I felt at the time. Again the results of this type of behaviour are more instantaneous and depending on the level of injury may or may not result in lasting damage.

3. Food – From binge eating, to deliberate starvation, and purging (vomiting) or purely not wanting or needing to eat much if anything as a result of feeling so low or depressed. Food can be used to self-harm and regulate emotions.

Gorging and binge eating can relieve feelings of emptiness, whilst purging can be a release. More serious, but rarer methods of ‘eating for harm’ involve things such as ingesting non-food items or chemicals.

For me the desire to eat can be missing entirely during crisis phases but I have never purged deliberately.

Eating disorders are common co-morbid conditions in those with BPD. Other than the obvious instant relief of feeling full, or empty, using food as a method of self-harm is one way of creating lasting damage such as anorexia, obesity and the medical complaints that can go with these conditions.

4. Alcohol – Even people without mental health issues have a tendency to use alcohol to help them deal with feelings and emotions that may be overwhelming them.

It is a method of self-harm that is barely given a second glance with so many people drinking to excess for fun, a glass of ‘dutch courage’ etc etc. But the fact remains that it is a method of self-harm that can lead to instant damage, or result in long-term harm or damage from ulcers, to liver failure.

I don’t generally have much of a problem with alcohol in the day to day sense, I can go weeks, months, year without touching a drop, but when I am in the ‘wrong’ frame of mind I will binge drink to the point of alcohol poisoning and often mix alcohol with overdosing on over-the-counter medications – not necessarily as a suicidal gesture but at the least as an attempt for a complete ‘block’ out of feelings and emotions.

5. Drugs – Legal drugs, illegal drugs, prescribed medications, over-the-counter medications or other substances from aerosols or gas, to glue.

Drugs fulfil a range of desires and illicit or block feelings and emotions that may be too overwhelming if one is not in an altered state of mind.

A flow diagram of two theories of self-harm.

Image via Wikipedia

I have never used any ‘hard’ drugs, but I have abused various substances.  In my teens I sniffed tippex thinners, poppers and glue before moving onto gas. From there I went on to smoking cannabis, I never smoked it often and stopped before I became pregnant; although I did smoke it again a few times when the children were a bit older. Over-the-counter or prescribed medications are what I have abused most of all, mainly in over doses, from paracetamol to Tramadol.

And of course the short and long term risks of all methods of substance abuse are high, from sickness to brain damage and death.

6. Sex – Strangely this topic is probably the most taboo when it comes to self-harm. But sex is a tool for harm as much as any other listed here. The key issue is that impulsive, reckless behaviour associated with BPD and other mental illnesses means that not only is the chance of a very high (or non-existent) sex drive common but that this fill not be easily satisfied in a monogamous relationship.

Many BPD sufferers have suffered sexual abuse and as a result have distorted connections with sex. For me, a high sex-drive and history of abuse mean that I have at times used sex as a form of self-punishment and abuse.  When impulsive I have been known to sleep-around, cheating on partners, but worst of all due to the recklessness of this the use of ‘protection’ is rarely considered.

Thus sexual promiscuity as self-harm brings risks of unwanted pregnancy (not an issue for me as I have been sterilised) and sexually transmitted diseases. I have been lucky not to catch anything serious, but others are not so lucky…

Again the short term risks of damaging relationships and STD’s through to long-term risks of life-threatening STD’s, infertility and pregnancy are all high.

7. Spending – Another reckless behaviour. Many people without mental illnesses have issues with excessive spending, why else are so many people in massive amounts of debt!?

For me, when I am low I will buy books, CD’s, DVD’s and clothes to excess, I don’t have the time to read, watch, listen to or wear all the things I buy because I just buy so much. I have been very lucky, I have never gotten into any debt, not even run up an overdraft or had charges on credit cards (I pay in full every month, never miss a payment) but again a lot of people struggle with this.

It can lead to other longer term financial issues such as gambling, loan sharks and losing one’s home if people cannot regain control of their spending habits in the short term.

8. Body Adaptation/Mutilation – From simple things like multiple piercings and tattoo’s to more drastic body adaptions. Body dis-morphia can be art of this or it can be, as it is for me just another form of punishment or release.

I pass out every time I have a tattoo, but I love that it hurts, leaves a permanent record on my skin. generally I always used to stick to having tattoo’s in places where I can keep them hidden if I so wish, but during my major crisis earlier this year I had a tattoo on my neck. A garish, bloody, blade.

I am now paying the price of that one, it looks bad if I go for job interviews, I had to cover it with make-up whilst I was at work in my last job and I am now having laser-removal treatment to try and get rid of it. Laser-removal is a long, uncomfortable process, with a risk of damage and scarring that may actually look worse than the tattoo – although hopefully it looks like it is working well so I may not have those problems.

The risks of tattoos and piercings may not seem so high in comparison to other self harm methods, short term risks of infection being most common. But going to the wrong place can add in a risk of dirty needles and diseases linked to that, and long-term it can affect your ability to gain employment which can have a knock-on effect on other areas of your life.

9. Exercise – You may think you can’t ‘over-do it when it comes to exercise, but have you felt that rush of endorphins when you have had a really good work out?

exercise makes you hornyWhen I was doing BMF I would do a session, working hard for an hour in a very physically demanding class, then do another session straight after, and being so ‘high’ I would be doing cartwheels down the car park still raring to go when other people were dripping with sweat, exhausted and even feeling nauseous. Like a lot of other things, my body/brain did not handle exercise the way other people do, and I ma not alone in this. The problem comes when this becomes addictive, weight is dropping off you, you can’t eat or sleep you are so hyped up on the endorphins.

It’s great.

Then you crash…

For me having underlying physical problems the crash would be days/weeks of agonising pain, unable to walk, sit, move, stand, do anything without pain that brings tears to your eyes.

Exercise, in moderation, is great.  But, for some people the rush and pleasurable feelings (instead of crappy feelings) can be so addictive we take it to dangerous extremes that actually do us more harm than good. Until, like me now, you cannot do any exercise at all, because your body is so damaged…

10. Law breaking – I guess this one is probably the most risky in many ways, but it all depends on the levels people go to. Most common in self-harm will be excessive speeding, with the risks of crashing, death and speeding tickets, but whilst the intention to cause harm may be directed at oneself, the risks to others are far higher in this method of self-harm than almost any other – hitting a pedestrian, causing other cars to crash etc.

Shop-lifting, and theft in general may occur to feed other problem areas such as finance or drugs.

Violence – provoking physical fights, or abusing other people are also a possibility.

I hate this method of self-harm due to the fact that others usually get hurt as a result of someone’s law-breaking activities. I have not indulged in law-breaking beyond some petty shop-lifting as a teenager.

And have no intention of ever indulging in such activities, but not everyone feels this way, BPD or not. People do this all the time, regardless if they have a mental health problem or not, but strangely it is those of us with mental health problems that are more likely to be labelled ‘dangerous’ even if we have never hurt anyone in our lives, ever, and never would…


So there you have it, 10 common methods of self-harm. This is not a comprehensive list, there are still many more types of self-harm. I just wanted to bring attention to the fact that self-harm is far more encompassing that you may suspect or believe. People who self-harm need help to overcome and deal with their problems, but the first step is recognising you have a problem…

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55 comments on “What is Self-harm? 10 common methods

  1. Thanks for the post.

    That was certainly exposure therapy for me – Triggering indeed but it’s all good – I’m not giving in to the urges that I am having to hurt myself. It’s been 3 months since I hurt (cut) myself last and I’m not planning on going back to those dark places. I hope that I can stick to that. But I know that it’s not going to be easy. It’s so ingrained in me to self-harm, I’ve been doing it since I was 13 years old and now I am 26 years old.

    Since my mental breakdown of sorts 17 months ago, I just burned and cut myself. Ah, and took an overdose of sleeping pills. And some other occasions where I took a lot of pills and alcohol together but just got sick on them and luckily it didn’t go further with that. With the cutting, I also didn’t need stitches at any point. I’m surprisingly bad with blood and gore but when I cut, most of the time, I don’t even really flinch.

    The cutting used to really ‘help’ me, I’d feel a release and better after, but the last few times I cut, it just made me feel sick to the stomach and I couldn’t do it any more. I hope that I can continue on like this.

    Those are my experiences anyway!

    All the best,

    The Quiet Borderline

    • It is always difficult to write about these things as it can be triggering to do the writing (it took me 2 months to write this as I could only tackle one section at a time due to it being triggering thinking about what I was writing!), triggering for readers, and can even put ideas in peoples heads if they are that way inclined, but worse would be not to talk about it as how can we ever get people to understand if we don’t explain these things!?

      I too have struggled since my teens with self-harm, and I’m now 35 (on Friday)!

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, hope you are doing okay at the moment 🙂 xx

    • OK, so a lot to think about here. Have struggled a lot with not being good enough or  worthy enough for the ones I love. I have four kids and my husband works away months at a time, I can’t cope and feel a rage that overwhelms me at times, and the only release I feel is to cut. I’m completely ashamed by this and know that on many levels I am damaging my kids, also my husband doesn’t get it, he either thinks I am completely nuts or just looking for attention. My question here though is, after cutting, which I too think looks quite pretty, I start to feel aroused and usually feel the need to masturbate. I know this is messed up, and I don’t think its a crazy thing as much as a release of inibitions, I suppose no different really to having a drink. I have hidden this for so long, and for a while didn’t feel the need to cut, but tonight I have, after weeks of resisting. This is also my first time writing about it. Thanks guys, it takes courage to share your stories, but I’m glad to know I’m not alone. My husband may not understand, but someone out there does. Xxxxxxxxxx

      • Hopefully Quiet will see this and respond.
        I can understand your arousal after cutting, it is such an emotional release, pleasurable, no wonder we struggle so much to get out of it! xx

  2. It amazes me that you can even talk about it, it takes a very strong sort of person to do so. Your posts aways put things into perspective for me. It makes me realise that my life is no where near as hard as most other people’s. I have no idea how you cope with it but keep it up! 🙂

    • Thank you Summer. This was probably one of the hardest post’s I’ve written as it was very triggering to think about these things and put it into words, but I felt it was important to share as people judge what they don’t understand and I want to help people understand 🙂

  3. When I was younger, numbers one and two were pretty big for me. The cutting happened at probably one of the lowest times for me, and, thankfully, the thought of cutting brings back all those negative feelings again and I’m at a point in my life where it’s no longer tempting because of that.

    I never really considered my own promiscuity as a sort of self-harm technique, though I have always wondered what might be the source of that particular drive. I think it’s mostly a sort of release and a way to feel connected with someone.

    What a thought-provoking post, though, Sharon! And probably pretty healing; I’ve always felt that discovery and understanding is what helps lead to better health and happiness.

    • Thank you 🙂

      I’m glad you have been able to get past the cutting, I would say mine has been at it’s worst over the past 2-3 years than ever before :/ One day I may not find it so helpful!

      I guess some people are just promiscuous in the normal sense, but when you add in a lack of concern over protection and being treated ‘rough’ it becomes more of an issue of power and control associated with self-harm?

  4. I can only begin to imagine how hard that was to write as reading it was hard enough. Thanks for putting it all out there. I have struggled with various forms of sh for about 15 years. Unfortunately I have the scars to show it. Not always just physical scars either. Problem is that at the time it feels good and I just don’t care.

    Your birthday on Friday? Happy birthday. I hope it is a good one.

    • Hi Catherine,

      I know what you mean about the scars, physical and otherwise and how it feels at the time. Yes, writing about it was very difficult!

      Thank you for the birthday wishes, 35 on Friday – saying the numbers makes me feel old, but emotionally I’m still a teenager! lol xx

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  8. I too deal with self harm. I haven’t had the best life and i use Self’harming(cutting)as a release as many other do. I can’t go a day without cutting myself with sharpener blades and an exacto knife or box cutter, I have cuts from my wrists all the way up to my inner elbow(or whatever it’s called). It makes me feel euphoric when i see my own blood and i feel that my cuts look beautiful because it shows what i have been though. I have depression, Bipolar and anxiety. I was diagnosed about a month and a half ago and i haven’t been dealing with it as good as i’d hoped. I have to live with all of these thousands of scars and cuts everyday reminding me of what my life has become. And i also drink and smoke and i’m only 16 but i hope one day i can quit all of these unhealthy things if i ever get enough will power which i don’t have. xx

    • Sorry to hear about your difficulties, I am sure with help, support, time and determination you can overcome and quit your unhealthy habits. Wanting to get better is the first step 🙂 Best Wishes to you xx

  9. This was really eye-opening for me.

    I’m 22 (nearly 23) years old and since I was about 15 I have had issues with depression and harming myself physically. A teacher finally saw the cuts on my arm and I managed to get myself under control after being put on anti-depressants and being monitored heavily by my family. Since then I’d looked at my scars as a symbol of how far I’d come and how strong, happy, and confident I felt with myself. However, the last few months I’ve been having a hard time with the temptation to harm myself again. I caved last night when I caught myself picking a bump on my elbow. I got carried away and was left with a large, bleeding cut. Of course, afterwards I felt guilty and embarrassed. I knew I couldn’t let myself go backwards so I ended up online looking for information I felt I was never given when I was younger which is how I found your page.

    I had no idea that so many of these things were other forms of self-harm. Numbers 4 and 6 really stood out to me as they’re both things I’ve struggled with. I wouldn’t go as far to say I have a drinking problem (I’ve never gotten drunk alone, for long periods of time, or to numb any sort of pain) but I’ve definitely gone to very great lengths (including calling in to work and spending money that should be going to bills) to make sure I don’t miss out on a party or a trip to the bar. Number six has always gone hand in hand with number four as well. No matter what I’ve told myself before I go out drinking, I almost always end up in someone else’s bed at the end of the night and I’ve never been able to figure out how to stop myself.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble on like that, it just felt good to vent to someone who gets it. Basically what I want to say is Thank You. Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to write about this. You’ve really opened my eyes and I think it’s time I stop making excuses (As good as I am at it) and get some real help.

  10. Well i can something from expirence. I’m 12 going to be 13 very soon. But i’ve been bullied since the 5th grade. It’s not an easy thing to get threw. My escape from all the bullshit was cutting myself, i had to see blood to know that i was saticfied. I never thought that i would start to cut or go threw this. I also starved. When i ate food normally it would discuse me. Now i still starve and i still cut, but i always thought that suicide was the BEST thing to fo. My principal has tried to help me but it ain’t enough. All i can say is that he’s my H E R O !

    • Sorry to hear you are going through all that 😦 I’m glad your principal has tried to help and hope he continues to do so you need someone to help you!

  11. I was never diagnosed with BPD but with PTSD, SD and Attachment Disorder. Very heavy on the sex with strangers, cutting and tattoos. Often I can’t feel which is great for missing control. Great article, very well explained!

  12. How would u be able to help/talk to a cutter and help them become clean? Ik it takes a long time and i have that.

    • I’m not sure Jessica, I’m not trained or qualified in doing such a thing, I think seeking professional help would be better and safer as you need someone who can be there at the worst times to support you and I’m not online often enough for that, the last thing I would want to do is let someone down when they need me!

  13. I never thought of excessive speeding as self-harm. I do it a lot, it makes me feel better, kind’ve like a rush, but even though I personally don’t care if I crash or something, I try avoiding situations that involve other people on the road. I try being very careful in that since I don’t care if I get hurt, but I do care if others do.
    I did a screening for depression once and my result was really high, but I honestly think I have BPD, though I haven’t really gone to a therapist or doctor to actually diagnose it. I’ve been self-harming since I was 8, though I started actually cutting in high school (I’m a junior in college now). I hate it, and I’ve managed to stop for long periods, but it keeps coming back over and over. I hate the part of me that cuts, but I can’t help it, and I don’t know how to make it stop completely.
    But thanks for posting this! I never really thought of most of this as self-harm, but reading it, I realized I’ve done quite a few.

  14. i started cutting when I was 7 and I am only 14 now but I have had stitches and have been hospital on many occasion for drug over dose and cutting to deep . it was hard for me to stop but it is so easy to start. I am a much happier person now I have stopped I have been from cutting drugs and alcohol for 1 year now . I use to cut every hour but now I go for a run instead xx

  15. I am worried about a friend of mine.. We only recently became such good friends and I want to help him. We both used to be suicidal and hav tried cutting ourselves but found it not to our liking. His dad is overcontroling and he thinks about doing no so good things because of that. He wuld never do it but his mind is still in that dark place… I also hav as I call them ‘dark moods’ or ‘dark thoughts’ and Id like to open up to u about it. I feel like I need to tell someone or else I’ll go down a road from which there is no return. Please reply.

  16. I pinch myself I started this year on valentines day and I’ve been doing it ever since. It feels good after I’m done and I get a big feeling of relief.

  17. I am 38 years old and my self harm got worse about 4 years ago, but I’ve been doing various things to myself since I was a teenager. I would be mortified if people knew this about me. It seems as if at my age I should “know better”, but all I know is that it helps me to deal with emotions in a way that only hurts me. I would much rather have scars on myself than take these things out on my kids.

    • It’s not an age thing, that is one of the many stigma’s about self-harm. There is an assumption that it is something teenage girls do for attention, when in reality in the teenage years boys are more likely to self-harm than girls and adult women are more likely to self-harm then teenage girls. And of course in most cases it is hidden and far from attention-seeking behaviour. However, you should try to get some help because it is a sign that there is something in your life you are unable to cope with without resorting to hurting yourself and that underlying issue needs to be resolved if you want to be able to stop. I hope you manage to get some help 🙂 xx

      • I’m in therapy, have a psychiatrist (although I don’t like him – it was part of my aftercare from hospitalization) and I have a great Primary Care physician that has helped me a lot. I haven’t cut myself in almost 2 weeks and I quit drinking with my Dr’s help. he gave me a 4 day supply of librium and it’s now been over two weeks since I’ve had any alcohol (I was drinking quite a lot every night to the point that I would get terribly anxious if I couldn’t get a drink by 5PM). Just started a new med 10 days ago. It’s helping some, but not quite as much as it should be yet, so I will probably up the dosage if it doesn’t “kick in” by next week. I’m doing ok – I definitely have a lot of underlying issues and I am aware of them. I just got a tattoo on the arm that I would cut so that I wouldn’t cut there anymore (I have my childrens’ names on my other arm and I have never cut on that arm since then – about 3 years ago)

      • I’m happy to hear you are getting help, love the tattoo idea, I have several tattoos myself and haven’t cut where they are so I think that is a good deterrent! Hope the path to recovery continues smoothly for you 🙂 x

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  19. My wife just had a baby from another man and when I read this article it described alot of what she does im scared im not sure how to handle this 😦

  20. Ok I’m truly sorry if this comes out as rude but how are some of these self harm??
    I kind of understand how law breaking and excersize fall under this category but not completely.
    Law breaking is well illegal. Like the excessive speeding and provoking fights, not many self harmers want to hurt others, that’s part of the reason why they keep it hidden, or at least it is for me. It makes no sense.
    And excersizing, it makes note sense the law breaking, but some self harm to feel pain and think jthey deserve it, others for the endorphins, exercising as stated releases endorphins too. And the crashing part some may want that. I don’t understand this either. I guess it just depends on the person.
    Oh before I forget, spending. What? I do not get that at all…..
    Also why aren’t burning, scratching etc. On this?

    Never mind that. You may be thinking, who is this girl to say this? How does she understand?
    I understand more than you’d think.
    I’ve been selfharming since I was ten, I’m thirteen now, I cut, scratch, beat myself and interfear with healing.
    I’m not proud of my acts at all.

    I dont understand Parts of your article, but I’m having trouble typing this comment so I can only imagine how hard it must have been to write this.

    Sorry if I came off as rude. Thanks for reading my excessivly long comment, have a nice day.

    • Hi Skye,

      No problem,it’s not rude at all, it’s just as you say not understanding. At thirteen whilst you may have a lot of experience the classic form of self-harm (cutting) with you haven’t faced adult experiences that cause us to bring harm upon ourselves in different ways, such as those mentioned in this article. They are all types of self-harm, they just affect different people in different ways and are used as coping mechanisms when life is too difficult. I am 37 now and have in the past used many of these methods of self-harm to cope, wrongly, with the difficulties I have been through.

  21. I have always had the sport one and always think that im overweihh but now im trying to loose weight cause i weigh 7 stone but thats just cause muscle snd cause that u think that im fat. I also scare my srlf by getting paper clips my id card staples and just slicing them across my wrist over and over and it leaves scars but relebes u of pai. I used to scratch at the bacm of
    my hand with my nails

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